Creating High-Reliability through Resilient Design

Sometimes we may hear of people talking about the principles of High-Reliability Organizations (HRO) and while they may seem intuitive and easy to grasp by some, for others they may be more nebulous at first glance. Others may say something like, “Oh we already do that.” Others may have the opposite attitude, such as, “Well, how could we do that?” Still others may be dismissive with comments like, “Oh that would never work here.” These are understandable viewpoints, given the context of the specific organizations and teams, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are true. Therefore, I think it may be helpful to provide a practical example to show how one organization is seeking greater resilience I believe this organization’s approach relates to at least two of Weick and Sutcliffe’s Principles of HRO (Preoccupation with Failure, and Commitment to Resilience).

I am a member of the Design Thinking group on LinkedIn. In this group, a member recently posted a link to an article about how one organization is creating resilience by identifying failure points and designing in countermeasures against this failure in its production environment. The article is listed here: I was fascinated by this approach is used to identify failure points and design in resilience. It made me think of how a proactive approach is often required to identify high-consequence failures.

Organizations must take the steps of identifying failure points and designing countermeasures, barriers, or defenses to reduce the likelihood of occurrence and/or to reduce the consequences. Additionally, operators and teams must be trained to sense and respond when weak signals are indicating the potential for an impending failure. In my opinion, to be successful an organization must integrate these approaches (including attitudes, behaviors, and work methods) into the daily fabric of operations until it becomes “the way we do things around here.” In other words, it becomes part of the organizational culture.

We want systems that can flex under the stress of expected and unexpected events without breaking and hopefully that become stronger as learning occurs and new actions are taken to improve. One way we did this in USMC and Navy aviation training was to train flight students to be highly competent at flying and using sound judgment and decision-making skills. Additionally, their training pushed them to the limits so that if an actual emergency occurred that would be prepared to respond appropriately. As a specific example, I will discuss the safe-for-solo check ride. This flight is an evaluation flight, and is normally the 13th familiarization flight. After 12 flights of preparation the students undergo a rigorous evaluation flight with someone besides their main flight instructor. This flight is designed to make sure they exhibit the competency and decision-making skills for solo flight. If a flight instructor has done his or her job well he will have made the 12th flight even harder that the safe-for-solo check ride, so that the check ride seems somewhat easier. Flight instructors do this because they want to make sure their students are extremely well prepared for expected events and unexpected abnormal and emergency scenarios. The added benefit is that on their solo flights they have been exposed to the type of training that has fine-tuned their senses and has helped to build an attitude that helps them become attuned to the aircraft performance and enables sense making and responsiveness if an unexpected situation arises.

I believe these principles are important for all organizations, and particularly in high-consequence industries where major failure is simply not an option. Whether your organization deploys production servers, trains aviators, or conducts other industrial operations, such as those in the mining, oil and gas, or manufacturing industries, I think there is a potential for applying these concepts. Organizations and teams may not know everything and it is unlikely that all risks will be predicted, but by designing for resilience and developing attitudes and behaviors that lend themselves toward sensing decreasing safety margins and impending failure, leaders and managers may be better-prepared to contend with the challenges faced in the operational environment.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you a great, safe, and productive day!

Reference: Weick, Karl E., and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. 

P.S. Stay tuned; our Crew Resource Management Implementation Guide is available for pre-order and will soon be available for download. This guide is designed to provide actionable tools to go along with the book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams. It is like a human performance toolkit to help implement some of the strategies from the book.