December 15, 2022 | Mark Paradies

What is a High-Reliability Organization?

high-reliability organization

What is a High-Reliability Organization? – Research Answers and Practical Advice

My interest in high-reliability organizations dates back to my time in the Nuclear Navy (1978-1985) and my human factors research at the University of Illinois (1983-1985). It predates many of the research projects mentioned here.

I take a highly practical view of high-reliability organizations rather than the theoretical approach taken by researchers. Why? Because I worked in a high-reliability organization: Admiral Rickover’s Nuclear Navy – the first (and perhaps only) – high-reliability organization. I experienced the factors that make it highly reliable. I paid the price in sweat and long hours.

Researchers take a different approach. They are observing the performance from the outside. And taking this approach, they never get a completely clear view of what happens in an organization. Why? Because no matter how closely they observe, they bring their own biases and only see what the organization wants them to see (or at least see the organization through a filter).

Researchers’ Definitions of a High-Reliability Organization

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to discover that there isn’t a single definition of a high-reliability organization. Instead, there are multiple, sometimes contradictory definitions. Here are a few…

From Robers and Rousseau, 1990 (Research into nearly failure-free, high reliability organizations: Having the bubble. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, page 160):

  • One can identify this subset [of organisations that have high safety records] by answering the question, “how many times could this organisation have failed resulting in catastrophic consequences that it did not?” If the answer is on the order of tens of thousands of times the organisation is “high reliability”’

From Rochlin, 1993 (Defining “high reliability” organizations in practice: a taxonomic prologue. In K. H. Roberts (Ed.), New challenges to understanding organizations (page 17). New York: Macmillan):

  • What distinguishes reliability-enhancing organizations is not their absolute error or accident rate, but their effective management of innately risky technologies through organizational control of both hazard and probability […]

Amanda Bosner (Achieving Zero Harm with High Reliability Organizations):

  • The term “high reliability” describes an organizational culture that strives to achieve error-free performance and safety in every procedure, every time — all while operating in complex, high-risk or hazardous environments. A high reliability organization (HRO) is an organization with predictable and repeatable systems that support consistent operations while catching and correcting potentially catastrophic errors before they happen.

Weick and Sutcliffe, 2015 (Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World)

  • High-reliability organizations operate under challenging conditions yet experience fewer problems than would be anticipated as they have developed ways of “managing the unexpected” better than most organizations.

So, my summation of these researchers’ definitions is that a high-reliability organization is:

  • mainly error-free while performing high-risk operations, and
  • achieve this through a similar set of principles and practices.

You can read more about high-reliability organization research HERE.

My Definition of a High-Reliability Organization (Practical Advice)

My definition of a high-reliability organization is:

  • An organization that accomplishes its mission over and over again in a demanding environment with zero major accidents (catastrophes in the researchers’ terminology) over an extended period of time (think decades).

What Are Good Examples of High-Reliability Organizations?

Many articles mention these as examples of high-reliability organizations:

  • Aircraft carrier flight operations
  • Nuclear power plants
  • Air traffic control

Using my definition of high-reliability organizations, only the nuclear power industry (with the exclusion of the Russians and Chernobyl) since Three Mile Island would qualify as a high-reliability organization. There are two many examples of aircraft carrier flight deck accidents and air traffic control-related accidents to qualify these examples as high-reliability.

USS Nautilus - first nuclear submarine
USS Nautilus – The First Nuclear-Powered Submarine

Sometimes submarines are mentioned in the list of high-reliability organizations, but I think most researchers fail to credit Admiral Hyman Rickover with the creation of the first high-reliability organization – the Nuclear Navy.

The Nuclear Navy has been operating from dozens to over a hundred nuclear power plants aboard submarines and surface ships since the 1950s with zero reactor accidents (major fuel melting with the release of radioactivity).

As Forbes stated:

“America’s Nuclear Navy is one of the oldest and largest nuclear organizations in the world and has the best safety record of any industry. And no one ever discusses it.”

USS Nimitz (nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) and USS Seawolf (nuclear-powered submarine) Photo Credit: US Navy

Nuclear Newswire reported in an August 2, 2022 article.

“The nuclear navy has logged over 5,400 reactor-­years of accident-­free operations
and traveled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough
to circle the earth 3,500 times. From the time of the USS Nautilus in 1954,
to the present, no civilian or military personnel on these ships, more than
a hundred thousand people, have ever been harmed by radiation from
reactors or facilities with which they were so intimately in contact.”

This record is even more remarkable when you recognize that Admiral Rickover was in charge of the program from 1949-1982 (retiring in 1982). That was 40 years ago! And the program has continued with the high standards he set all those years ago.

So, is the Nuclear Navy the ONLY high-reliability organization? Perhaps we can discuss that at the 2023 Global TapRooT® Summit.

Learm More About the First High-Reliability Organization

How did Rickover create the first high-reliability organization? I wrote seven articles about Rickover’s methods, and they are summarized HERE.

If you would like to hear more about this topic, you should attend Mark Paradies’ talk at the 2023 Global TapRooT® Summit.

Mark Paradies presents How Admiral Rickover Built the First High-Reliability Organization

This is just one of the over 40 presentations in the Summit’s eight best practice tracks. See more information about the eight tracks, HERE. See the complete Summit Schedule, including the five Keynote Speakers, HERE.

Summit Keynote Speakers 2023

The 2023 Global TapRooT® Summit is being held on April 24-28 (pre-Summit Courses on April 24-25, Summit on April 26-28) at the Margaritaville Lake Resort, Lake Conroe, near Houston, Texas. To register, CLICK HERE.

Operational Excellence, Safety, Summit
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