Unleashing the Power of High Reliability Organizations

About the Author: William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development

High Reliability Organizations (HROs) are organizations that operate in high-risk, high-consequence circumstances and yet experience far fewer failures than expected because of their complexity.  Examples of these organizations include those that engage in nuclear power generation, air traffic control operations, aircraft carrier maneuvers, and certain health care providers.  

Management and organizational theorists Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe studied these organizations in-depth and identified five characteristics that they held in common.  They coined the term “High Reliability Organizations” or “HROs” and described these characteristics in their important book, “Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” (Weick, 2007).  

The following sections provide descriptions of each of the five characteristics with a discussion of how Blue Dragon’s Integrated Problem-solving System (BDIPS) can enhance these characteristics for any organization to achieve HRO performance.

The first HRO characteristic: Preoccupation With Failure.  HROs are experts at documenting failures and looking for the lessons that they can teach.  HROs look at the large failures but also focus on the small, seemingly insignificant ones.  In highly complex systems that are tightly coupled (another of Karl Weick’s concepts; think of a row of dominoes), small failures can be a part of a causal chain that leads to much larger, even catastrophic failures.  The BDIPS methodology is founded on critical thinking, systems theory, and advanced causal analysis principles.  With this rigorous and structured tool, analysts can look at the interactions among many systems and identify failure modes that lead to proximal, intermediate, and root causes of the failure being identified.  The analysis is often conducted after a failure happens, but BDIPS is also capable of proactively analyzing the effectiveness of defenses put in place to prevent failures.  At this stage, organizations can deal with small failures to avoid the larger ones, saving time, money, reputation, and most importantly, save lives.

The second HRO Characteristic: Reluctance to Simplify.  The pressure to find quick answers to problems and failures is tremendous.  Interruptions to operations are costly, and managers often want quick solutions that allow the return to normal.  Often, these solutions are incomplete, and organizations can have repeats of the same failure or failures that are the manifestation of deeper-seated causes that have gone unrecognized.  The BlueDragon company was founded out of the need to identify the true root causes of complex systemic failures, and BDIPS is the culmination of over three decades of experience and development.  Despite how rigorous BDIPS is, it is also efficient; years of historical data prove that using BDIPS, analysts can identify the deepest-seated causes of complex problems in a fraction of the time of traditional methods.  It also supports the graded approach to problem-solving, which means that it adapts to small problems or large ones, with overhead costs being minimized in all cases. 

The third HRO Characteristic: Sensitivity to Operations. HROs stay sensitive to real-world operations, not just regulations. They focus on how work actually gets done, particularly the human aspects – the personnel directing efforts and the human-machine interfaces. BDIPS performs a systems inventory to identify all systems and subsystems that are negatively impacting effective and efficient operations and invites experts from affected organizations to participate in the analysis, key steps often neglected or not included with traditional methods.  The BDIPS framework also identifies and documents timelines and requirements that clearly show the differences in performance relevant to normal and abnormal operational events, as well as the causal pathways that show how the deep-seated causes led to the events.  Rather than getting lost in rules and data, BDIPS shines a light on how things function, and the human-centered perspective allows organizations to see and rectify the operational weaknesses lurking below the surface.

The fourth HRO Characteristic: Commitment to Resilience. Resilience is the ability to either maintain optimal functionality or return to full operations quickly when the organization experiences a shock. Many organizations have redundant systems and processes in place, and technological redundancy can help resilience, but relying on this exclusively simplifies the complex problem, violating Characteristic 2.  Organizations must also select, support, and train humans appropriately to be mindful lookouts for developing problems, and to be skilled at evaluating an organization that is in crisis.  These ideas are fundamental to BDIPS.  Through its application, analysts can identify holes in the defenses set in place to avoid problems, and to recommend actions that address these performance gaps and prevent their recurrence.  Also, identifying and addressing deep-seated causes will have a collateral benefit in that the corrective actions will prevent failures in seemingly unrelated operational areas.  The application of BDIPS as a regular self-assessment methodology builds resiliency into organizations like no other, and pays for itself many times over.

The fifth HRO Characteristic: Deference to Expertise.  Many work cultures encourage employees to defer to their bosses for virtually everything, but most importantly, for solving the biggest problems.  Often, the most essential information required for solving a problem does not lie with management; rather, it lies with the people closest to the operational problem who have real-time information.  In these stifling cultures, the best information is locked up and employees are too afraid to come forward with the best information and solution to a problem, or with warnings about a problem that is likely to happen.  BDIPS celebrates the workers and their subject matter expertise!  Bringing those closest to the work into the BDIPS analysis process is essential for the identification of weak, ineffective, or missing defenses, and identifying the deepest-seated causes of the problem.  Managers are also invited to participate in the analysis, but every attempt is made to protect the subject matter experts, to allow them to provide their essential expertise freely.


The HRO designation is not an official title or certification, rather, it is a set of attributes that the most effective organizations share.  Adopting the five characteristics of an HRO organization is a worthy transformational initiative that will pay many dividends.  And BDIPS is a cost-effective methodology that can help organizations to better understand and implement those principles.  


For more information on critical thinking and complex problem-solving, watch this video on our BlueDragon YouTube Training Channel

Contact us at: info@bluedragon1.com
Visit our website at: www.bluedragon1-ips.com

About the Author: William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development

Dr. (Bill) Toth is the former Manager of the Project, Program Management Office for International Nuclear Nonproliferation programs. Bill supports the development of programs and problem-solving concepts that  help sites important to national security with the proactive identification and mitigation of external threats to these most secure facilities.

© 2023 DLE Technical Services, LLC. All rights reserved. 

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