HRO is about high reliability organizing. Organizing is a verb and is about how people solve puzzles with each other. Puzzles that have to do with providing services or making a product. For example ‘how to operate a machine safely’, ‘how to handle a malfunction quickly’ or ‘how to find out how our customers value our services’. Organisations strive to tackle puzzles in an explicit and standardized way. This increases predictability, efficiency, speed at which new people can be trained, etc. They use mandatory procedures, protocols, forms and the like. These are written rules based on past experiences and factual knowledge. Next to that people in organizitions also interact on the basis of unwritten rules and hidden cultural patterns. Some people call this ‘culture’.
However, we live in a dynamic world. Organizations, networks and teams have to deal with changing markets, technological developments, new legislation, diversity of people, and as a consequence changing puzzles. Sometimes changes are not ‘seen’ or enacted by the organization. Rules and practices that worked fine yesterday can be obsolete today. Highly reliable organizations have the capacity to manage these changes and the unexpected events that might pop up. How are they doing that?
In short, in addition to formalizing, these organizations are permanently validating (rules and working practices), evaluating (does a rule trigger desired behavior) and learning (how can we do better). Moreover, they make unwritten rules and hidden patterns explicit and question their effects on reliability. They don’t do this a few times a year, but as often as possible and necessary. HRO means doing two things together simultaneously:  Follow the rules and act, and  ask whether rules fits the puzzle and whether a rule makes other puzzles invisible.
How to organize this? What are complementary practices that makes this doing and thinking normal behaviour? This is where HRO is about. Organizations that have a high level of reliability address the following questions:
- ‘Is it still right?’ – they look for abnormalities
- ‘What are we ignoring?’ – they refuse to simplify
- ‘What is everybody doing?’ – they have a joint overview of the operation
- ‘Can we do better?’ – they appreciate tenacity and resilience
- ‘Who knows more than us?’ – they respect expertise
Conditions for developing HRO
HRO means ‘constantly evolving and seeking for better performance’. That requires a few important conditions. To keep the developmental process active you need certain conditions. E.g. there is no point in trying to be more alert when the group is dominated by conflicts. These conditions are not specific to HRO, but more generally to what we call ‘learning organisations’ and ‘organisational development’. Besides general basic conditions we call:
- Focus on relationships. You do excel with each other, as a collective and not as an individual. Heedful relationships are therefore crucial.
- Working on common frameworks. To be able to perform well as a team or organisation it is importantto speak the same ‘language’ and to pursue the same goals.
- Sharing information and learning collectively. Developing reliability means actively sharing information, being aware of each other’s work and expertise and learning each other.
- Investing in capacities. Having alternatives, practicing and knowing what to do if a first approach does not work, are prerequisite for managing unexpected and undesirable situations.