Tailoring Safer Systems

The characteristics of High Reliability Organizations

Highly Reliable Organizations

Today, companies are faced with ever increasing complexity. On the one hand, companies themselves are complex, socio-technical systems, and on the other hand, they are embedded in a complex environment with numerous known and unknown factors. How can an organization successfully keep up with these constantly increasing demands?

In this article, I will focus on High Reliability Organizations (HRO) and the therewith-related High Reliability Theory (HRT). The idea of High Reliability Organizations originally comes from organizations that successfully operate in high-risk industries. Examples include air traffic control, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers, power grid operators and similar fields of activity. However, I am personally convinced that the insights gained from HRO and the associated operational principles can be transferred to any organization and – like the classic HRO – will make them more successful.

The emergence of the High Reliability Theory

In 1984, sociologist Charles Perrow published his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies” in which he introduces the Normal Accident Theory (NAT) using an analysis of the reactor accident in the nuclear power plant Three Miles Island in the USA in 1979. His reasoning was that complex and tightly coupled1 systems would have to lead to a catastrophic accident sooner or later. It was therefore irresponsible to operate such systems, for example nuclear power plants. This theory appears to be absolutely plausible, however, it holds a problem: It cannot be falsified. Because – and this was Perrow’s answer to criticism several times– even if there had never been an accident, it was just a matter of time before it would happen. Who can refute a forward-looking statement?

NAT has rightly received a lot of attention in safety sciences and Perrow has been cited thousands of times. But the question arose as to why there were still organizations that can successfully operate complex, tightly coupled systems with virtually no incidents. This question has inspired the Berkley scholars Gene I. Rochlin, Todd R. La Porte, and Karlene H. Roberts to study such organizations more closely and to publish an article on High Reliability Organizations in 1987 in response to Perrow’s NAT: The High Reliability Theory (HRT). Using a best practice approach, the Berkley scholars examined why operations on an aircraft carrier (in peacetime), where aircraft move at high speed and in tight space in the presence of dangerous goods such as fuel and weapons, do not (or did not yet) lead to a catastrophic accident.

As the NAT, the HRT received a lot of attention. As a result, it was followed by numerous publications and there are still articles and books published today on this topic. Of course, Perrow’s answer to HRT was not longin coming. While the Berkley scholars considered their work as complementary to NAT, Perrow did not agree with this assessment and contradicted directly. After 1987, numerous studies and survey were conducted in different industries such as nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers (in peacetime), power grid operators, air traffic control, etc. These studies have contributed to the further development of the HRT. In 2001, Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe published the first edition of “Managing the Unexpected” in which they broke down the findings to five HRO principles that I will explain further down. “Managing the Unexpected” was published in a second edition in 2007 and in a third edition in 2015

The five HRO Principles

The first three of the five HRO principles are primarily to be understood from a prevention perspective. The focus is on preventing serious incidents and accidents.

Preoccupation with failure: To deal with possible failure means to think about what could go wrong and to look for weak signals in the system. These are activities that can be taken over by effective risk management but should also be firmly anchored in the everyday work routine of all employees. When analyzing risks, it is important to understand what could happen. However, it is even more important to get to the bottom of the question of why something could happen.

Reluctance to simplify: We tend to look at something in a way that fits our personal view of the world. This applies to both individuals and entire organizations. With the reluctance to simplify, the existing view of the world is questioned, and situations are viewed from different perspectives.

Sensitivity to operations: In an HRO, operational processes set the pace of the organization. The organization has a high awareness of details and identifies weak signals. The quality of relationships is strong. There is a culture of trust, which enables employees to speak openly about irregularities and concerns in connection with operational processes.

But an HRO is also aware that, despite all efforts, mistakes cannot be completely avoided. The last two of the five HRO principles focus primarily on coping with errors in order for them not to develop into a crisis.

Commitment to resilience: Errors also occur in HROs. HRO do not try to be error-free, but on the one hand they have the ability to quickly recover from mistakes before a crisis arises, and on the other hand they have the ability – if a crisis does occur – to quickly get out of this crisis.

Deference to expertise2: If an HRO is in a critical situation or even in a crisis, the decisions to deal with this situation are made “at the front” by the relevant experts and not necessarily by the management. Figuratively speaking, the hierarchy pyramid is turned upside down. Once the crisis has been overcome, the hierarchy pyramid will be normalized again.

Why becoming a High Reliability Organization?

The five HRO principles support a company to become a mindful organization that is able to focus on operational processes, detect weak signals, learn from irregularities and manage potentially dangerous situations before they turn into a full-blown crisis. The benefits that result from this are manifold. For example, losses in connection with a crisis – be it a production shutdown or a far-reaching scandal – can be avoided or limited, or a significant competitive advantage can be achieved by optimizing operational processes. If a company is perceived as an HRO from outside, it can have a positive impact on public perception and can also play a decisive role in the war for talent.

In conclusion, it can be said that the concept of the High Reliability Organization not only supports companies in high-risk areas, but basically supports all companies in successfully sustaining themselves in their increasingly complex environment and in creating a competitive advantage.


1 Tightly coupled systems are systems with rigid processes that cannot be interrupted and need to be executed in a precisely prescribed way.

2 From my experience I can say that this fifth principle also harbours dangers. It is often misunderstood that this principle is only used in crisis and not during normal operations. “Deference to expertise” does not mean that all decisions in an HRO need to be made by operational experts.

Fabian Landherr

Managing Director at safety & risk solutions GmbH

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