Assessing high reliability seeking organizations

“Organizations, concerned with their level of safety and/or with their public image, want to become HROs and maybe more importantly they want to be described as HROs. The HRO term has somehow become a label of excellence …”1   What began in the mid-1980’s by a multidisciplinary group of scholars at U.C. Berkeley has become a de facto standard of reference for high hazard science and technology organizations world- wide. 

 The most common questions about HROs are: What are they, how do you become one, and how do you know it when you see it?  The third question, knowing it when you see it, has become of increasing interest to managers and regulators as well as scholars.  Fueled by the catastrophes of the BP Deepwater Horizon and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants, how to measure and assess high reliability demanding organizations is a topic of high visibility.  As readers will already understand, HRO’s are unique not only in what they do and how they think, but also in how they learn. The next few blogs on this site will review four recent publications that specifically focus on the unique challenges and effective approaches needed to assess such organizations.  For you who might wish to do some “read ahead” here are the titles and urls:

 ·       Effectiveness of Safety and Environmental Management Systems for Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Operations

 ·       A Guidebook for Evaluating Organizations in the Nuclear Industry – an example of safety culture evaluation

 ·       Evaluating safety-critical organizations – emphasis on the nuclear industry

 ·       Management Walk-Arounds: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Well Blowout

As a prequel to the next few postings, the uniqueness of assessing for high reliability is foreseen   in a question posed by Eric Arne Lofquist; ‘‘is safety an outcome in itself, or is safety an emergent quality of a complex system producing desired outcomes that are safe?” In his paper “The Art of Measuring Nothing”2 Lofquist introduces the fallacy of attempting to assess high reliability demanding organizations with traditional management, safety or regulatory approaches: 

“the safety literature is of little help in providing alternate means of measuring safety outcomes in high-risk industries that are also ultra-safe… This is because most of the literature focuses either upon accident causation or human failure after a catastrophic event and not on safe system operations per se. This is influenced by the primary focus on accidents or near-accidents as abnormal events, and not the occurrence of undesired events as otherwise normal but unforeseen outcomes in properly functioning systems. This difference, though seemingly minor, significantly changes the way we look at system operations and system outcomes, particularly during system changes that lead to latent failures (Reason, 1990) that may provide important leading signals of impending disaster. Paying more attention to leading indicators or even the development of latent conditions that do not have immediate negative consequences can produce significant benefits for both understanding safe system operations and preventing systems from becoming unstable.”

 The theme for the next few posts; “In ultra-safe organizations incidents and accidents are rare by design so failure provides little chance for learning. The absence of failure does not constitute proof of safety”.

 1 Mathilde Bourrier (2011). “The legacy of the theory of high reliability organizations: an ethnographic endeavor” Genève : Université de Genève

 2 “The art of measuring nothing: The paradox of measuring safety in a changing civil aviation industry using traditional safety metrics”, Eric Arne Lofquist, Norwegian School of Management, BI Bergen, Norway Safety Science Volume 48, Issue 10, December 2010, Pages 1520-1529


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