Organizing for high-reliability: an introduction

HRO studies have shown that HROs avoid system accidents by creating the appropriate behaviors, attitudes and safety culture (Weick and Roberts 1993).


Photo courtesy of ©

The concept of High Reliability Organisation was developed in the 1980s by the ‘Berkley Group’ as a response to Perrow’s (1984) pessimistic conclusion that accidents are inevitable or ‘normal’ in systems that are interactively complex and tightly coupled. In contrast, High Reliability Theory (HRT) recognizes that some organizations are able to effectively operate in such environments and achieve a record of consistent safety over long periods of time (La Porte and Consolini 1991; Roberts 1990).

A range of key features have been identified that are considered to be the hallmark of HROs, including technical expertise, stable technical processes, a high priority placed on safety, attention to problems, and a learning orientation (La Porte and Consolini 1991; Roberts 1990). Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) later offered five principles of HROs: preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to experience. Other authors have also offered new interpretations, terminology and “the range of alleged high reliability concepts is now enormous” (Vincent, 2010). Numerous authors have argued that the principles of HRO are context-dependent (Waller and Roberts, 2003) and caution that the principles and practices that emerged from high reliability theory should be used as ‘[…] frames and not as blueprints’ and ‘need to be tested empirically – both through research and through action […]’ (Tamuz and Harrison, 2006, pp. 1670-71). There is a pressing need for research to provide a more nuanced, contingency framework, to help organizations to identify HRO practices that fit their particular situation.

HRO studies originally included US Navy carrier aviation (e.g. Rochlin et al., 1987), the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control operations (Schulman, 1993b), commercial nuclear power plants (LaPorte and Lasher, 1988) and offshore platforms (Bea, 2002). More recently, researchers have argued that HRO theory is applicable in ‘ordinary’, low hazard environments (Zohar and Luria, 2003) that also present a need for reliable performance such as police (Roberts et al., 2008), train operations (Jeffcott et al., 2006) and railways (Busby, 2006), electricity provision (Roe and Schulman, 2008), software firms (Vogus and Welbourne, 2003), banking (Roberts and Libuser, 1993), microcomputer firms (Eisenhardt, 1989), schools (Reynolds et al., 2006) and information systems projects (Denyer and Kutsch, 2012). Authors have also acknowledged the potential value of HRO to healthcare because the environments and challenges are similar (Hudson, 2003; Tamuz and Harrison, 2006; Baker and Day, 2006; Vogus and Sutcliffe, 2007, Vincent, 2010, Healthcare Commission, 2011). As noted by Vincent (2010), the

“study of high reliability organizations has encouraged optimism about what can be achieved in health care and pointed to a much more proactive approach to safety than the more familiar reactive learning from incidents and adverse events” (Vincent, 2010: 340)

While theoretical contributions abound, few empirical studies have been conducted. There are a number of key gaps in our understanding that give rise to three important questions:

Firstly, while previous studies highlight a wide range of characteristics said to be important to safety and reliable performance, it is not clear which are the most important in different settings.

Q1: What high reliability organization (HRO) features and characteristics are applicable in different settings ?

Second, few studies focus on HRO implementation. Little is known about the combination of opportunities and barriers that arise in such settings, the required capabilities of those responsible or the processes of implementation.

Q2: What conditions and factors contribute to the effective implementation of HRO ?

Third, the field has remained resolutely descriptive with few attempts to measure the characteristics of high reliability organizations or relate them to substantive safety outcomes.

Q3: To what extent does HRO contribute to improved safety and reliable performance ?

My work seeks to address these three critical questions.

BAKER DP, DAY R, SALAS E. 2006. Teamwork as an essential component of high-reliability organizations. Health Serv Res: 41:1576-98
BEA, R. 2002. Human and Organizational Factors in Risk Analysis and Management of Offshore Structures. Risk Analysis, 22, 29-45.
BUSBY, J. S. 2006. Failure to Mobilize in Reliability-Seeking Organizations: Two Cases from the UK Railway. Journal of Management Studies, 43, 1375-1393.
DENYER, D., TRANFIELD, D. & VAN AKEN, J.E. 2008. Developing design propositions through research synthesis, Organization Studies, 29, 393-413.
EISENHARDT, K. M. 1989. Making fast strategic decisions in high-velocity environments. Academy of Management Journal, 32, 543-576.
HEALTH FOUNDATION 2011. Evidence Scan: High Reliability Organisations.
HUDSON P. Applying the lessons of high risk industries to health care. Qual Saf Health Care2003;12(suppl 1):i7-12.
LAPORTE, T. R. & CONSOLINI, P. M. 1991. Working in Practice but Not in Theory: Theoretical Challenges of High Reliability Organizations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 1, 19-47.
LAPORTE, T. R. & LASHER, T. 1988. Cold Turkeys and Task Forces: Pursuing High Reliability in California’s Central Valley. Working Paper 88-25. Berkeley, CA: Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California.
PERROW, C. 1984. Normal accidents, New York, Basic Books.
ROBERTS, K. H. & LIBUSER, C. 1993. From Bhopal to banking: Organizational design can mitigate risk. Organizational dynamics, 21, 2-17.
REYNOLDS, D., STRINGFIELD, S. & SCHAFFER, E. 2006. The High Reliability Schools Project. Some Preliminary Results and Analyses. In: CRISPEELS, J. & HARRIS, A. (eds.) School Improvement: International Perspectives. London: Routledge.
ROE, E. & SCHULMAN, P. R. 2008. High Reliability Management: Operating on the Edge, Standford, CA, Standford University Press.
ROBERTS, K. H. 1990. Some characteristics of one type of high reliability organization. Organization Science, 1, 160-176.
ROCHLIN, G. I., LAPORTE, T. R. & ROBERTS, K. H. 1987. The Self Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea. Naval War College Review, 40, 76-90.
SCHULMAN, P. 1993a. The Analysis of High Reliability Organizations: A Comparative Framework. In:
ROBERTS, K. H. (ed.) New Challenges to Understanding Organizations. New York: Macmillan.
SUSMAN G. I, EVERED, R. 1978. An Assessment of Scientific Merits of Action Research, Administrative Science Quarterly, 23: 582-603
TAMUZ M, HARRISON MI. Improving patient safety in hospitals: contributions of high-reliability theory and normal accident theory. Health Serv Res 2006;41:1654-76.
VINCENT C, BENN J, HANNA GB. High Reliability in Healthcare. BMJ 2010;340:c84.
VOGUS, T. J. & WELBOURNE, T. M. 2003. Structuring for high reliability: HR practices and mindful processes in reliability-seeking organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, 877-903.
VOGUS, T. J. & SUTCLIFFE, K. M. 2007. The Impact of Safety Organizing, Trusted Leadership and Care Pathways on Reported Medication Errors in Hospital Nursing Unites. Medical Care, 45, 1-6.
WALLER, M. J., AND ROBERTS, K. H. (2003). High reliability and organisational behaviour: Finally the twain must meet. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, 813-814.
WEICK, K. E. & ROBERTS, K. H. 1993. Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 357-381.
WEICK, K. & SUTCLIFFE, K. 2001. Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.
ZOHAR, D. & LURIA, G. 2003. Organizational meta-scripts as a source of high reliability: The case of an army armored brigade. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, 837-859.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *