The Five Basic Principles of High Reliability Organizations

Updated: May 9

A high reliability organization (HRO) is one that successfully avoids or minimizes catastrophes, accidents, and failures. HROs must be successful despite the myriad of risk factors and complexities in the operational environment.

As noted by the Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality, [in an organization of] "constantly changing conditions, and hierarchical organizational structure, all personnel consistently prioritize safety and have both the authority and the responsibility to make real-time operational adjustments to maintain safe operations as the top priority."

As of this writing, aspirational HROs are most frequently organizations whose missions include life-or-death responsibilities. These include healthcare organizations and military units. However, the concept is quickly catching on amongst many types of industries that seek to serve their clientele. They seek to support personnel in areas that have been negatively effected by severe weather and can reasonably anticipate threats.

Researchers from the University of Michigan faculty identified five basic principles that characterize HROs. These principles below are widely accepted as the fundamental criteria for high reliability.

  • Preoccupation with Failure. This does not mean that leaders overlook their organization’s strengths and successes. It does mean that leaders and team members alike think continually about what could possibly go wrong. They don’t get complacent. They understand that new threats and problems can arise in all sorts of surprising ways. They are constantly on the lookout, staying a step ahead, and addressing actual and potential breakdowns immediately.

  • Reluctance to Simplify. When problems arise or accidents occur, HRO personnel do not settle for the simplest, most obvious explanations. They dig deeper for root causes. They examine the context. They question underlying assumptions. They “get into the weeds.”

  • Sensitivity to Operations. Leaders and team members keep their “fingers on the pulse” of how processes actually work within the organization. They look at what the actual conditions are and what workers’ experiences are like. They consider how all the moving pieces work together. This is sometimes referred to as “situational awareness.” The primary way to cultivate this sensitivity is by keeping communication channels open. Being transparent within the organization, and honoring everyone’s perspective are the hallmarks of being open.

  • Deference to Expertise. The boss doesn’t always know best. HRO leaders stay aware of who in the organization has specialized knowledge in various areas. Often, it’s the front line workers who know best. Expertise trumps hierarchy in an HRO.

  • Commitment to Resilience. There are multiple dimensions to this. Commitment to resilience includes the ability to anticipate problems, respond to problems swiftly, and recover completely. Resilience requires a spirit of innovation and inquiry with regard to troubleshooting weaknesses. It also involves continual skill improvement and refinement of evaluation tools.

In a time when there are fewer certainties, and potential catastrophes around every corner, wisely-led organizations of all stripes make the cultivation of resilience a high priority.


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