High Reliability Organisations

High Reliability Organisations

High Reliability Organisations (HRO) refer to organisations that conduct their business in an environment where high risks are evident. Organisations such as airlines, air traffic control and maintenance organisations can benefit from adopting HRO principles (Dekker & Woods, 2010). These align the objectives of the organisation to create consistent safe out comes through managing the safety risks. Safety in HRO is an on-going strategic objective and shares many of the features that are associated with the management of human factors but on a macro scale. This finds relevance in today’s aviation environment where achieving safety objectives becomes an important objective and in turn drives profitability.

HRO's go beyond the normal realms of safety management by creating an environment encourages activities that investigates and pre-anticipates future safety issues and manages them. Organisations in high risk industries, where failure of safety measures results in catastrophic events, require a higher level of safety awareness through-out the organisation. The purpose of a HRO is to go beyond the regulatory obligations and create policies that learn from events, or anticipate events to lower the risk of unsafe episodes occurring and have strategies to cope with such episodes if they do occur.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe have led recent research into HRO’s and help describe the characteristics of HRO’s and non HRO’s. Links to their video presentations are given below.

The Five Characteristics of HRO's

Weick and Sutcliffe have identified five characteristics of HRO’s (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999) and these are:

1: Preoccupation with failure

  • Failures in organisations may be rare events, in a HRO “mindfulness” of the organisation is constantly concerned with the possibility of failure and therefore uses any opportunity to improve or review processes that will prevent failure. Methodologies used include active encouragement of incident and accident reporting backed with incentives to reward reporting. Such actions mean that the organisation is fully aware of any minor activity that may impact safety. The focus is inward and internal solutions found rather than laying blame on individuals or machinery.

2: Reluctance to simplify operations

  • Difficult tasks tend to be broken into simple components in order to create efficiency and as such occur within a given mindset adopted by operators. The restrictive nature of a mindset or simplistic actions can allow errors to accumulate unnoticed. HRO’s do not allow assumptions to become operational norms and this is achieved through on-going audits, process reviews, training and job reassignment. This ensures that each task is subject to fresh perspectives and latent errors that would otherwise be unnoticed are detected.

3: Sensitivity to operations

  • Situational awareness, crew resource management and the flight-deck “Loop” raise overall awareness and sensitivity to the task at hand. This allows for continual adjustments that prevent errors from happening. Operators have a high state of alertness, awareness, activity and this protects against surprises especially when automated systems are used.

4: Commitment to resilience

  • Resilience in an organisation allows the business to continue in the event of a catastrophic event because dealing with the event is within the organisations capabilities. When events occur outside normal operational boundaries then knowledge experts will gather into informal networks to provide solutions to the problem at hand. Once the issue is attended to, normal operations resume. In high risk industries the requirement to return to normal business is paramount as safety risk increases when normality is disrupted.

5: Deference to expertise

  • Expertise and experience can be found at any level in an organisation. Deference to expertise allows the organisation to seek solutions from those best suited to solving them. This focus means that traditional hierarchical decision making is put aside while the problem is being attended to.

Characteristics of Non HRO’s

In non HRO’s the absence of events may be seen as a success which “breeds confidence and fantasy” (Weick et all, 1999) this ultimately lead to failures as managers concentrate on other success factors and complacency towards safety creeps upwards (Roberts, 2008). The cognitive infrastructure is underdeveloped and this is evident from a lack of awareness or mindfulness with-in the organisation. This is in part driven by a focus on efficiency where operators and managers will take risk or trade-offs to improve efficiency. Such savings are often at the expense of training or oversimplification of the job and thus the organisation will have less diversity and tendency towards conformity or a “set way of doing things”. The accumulation of these factors allows early warnings to go undetected and for latency to accumulate creating an environment at risk of failure.

High Reliability in Action, Video of Aircraft Carrier Operations, This might be fun to watch but how safe would you feel ?

Want to know more?

For more indepth information: Below are links to .pdf and video presentations on HRO's from some of the leading researchers.

Karleen Roberts; a .pdf presentation on: “How to achieve high and low reliability organisations”

Kathleen Sutcliffe; a video discussion on HRO’s and planning HRO's and planning, 8 minutes.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe; give a video presentation on HRO's, its 45 minutes long, but interesting if you have the time.


Dekker, S. W., & Woods, D. D. (2010). The High Reliabilty Organization Perspective. In E. Salas, & D. Maurino (Eds.), Human Factors in Aviation (2nd ed., pp. 123-143). Burlington, MA, USA: Academic Press.

Roberts, K. H.. How to achieve High and Low Reliability Organizations. Retrieved September 23, 2012, from California Statelands Commission: http://www.slc.ca.gov/division_pages/mfd/Prevention_First/Documents/PF2K6/PF2K6%20PRESENTATIONS/BARCELONA%20CASA%20BLANCA/1A/WORDS%20ON%20HOW%20TO%20ACHIEVE%20HIGH%20AND%20LOW%20RELIABILITY%20ORGANIZATIONS.pdf

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (1999). Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness. (R. S. Sutton, & B. M. Staw, Eds.) Research in Organizational Behaviour, 1, 81-123.

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