Building Your Center of Excellence: 5 Principles of High Reliability Organizations (HROs)

Rob Ffield
Aug 17, 2017 · 5 min read

Making a habit of learning something new every day is a core philosophy of the CATSHOT brand. As I always try to continue my education and thinking of new ways to shape and adapt the CATSHOT teachings, I came across the notion of High Reliability Organizations (HROs).

The idea of HROs has recently come to prominence from its adoption in the healthcare industry, meant to be a goal-oriented classification for hospital leaders at all levels who are interested in providing patients with safer and higher quality care. However, specific examples that have been studied, most famously by researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, include nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems and naval aircraft carriers.

This immediately reminded me of CASTHOT’s idea of creating a Center of Excellence, a combination of effective leadership through innovation and optimization with the principles of building a culture to win, which is largely outlined in my CATSHOT 13 (C13) program.

How is C13 similar to HROs?

Let’s start by describing what C13 is…

The C13 program is about setting the stage for reaching your life goals and helps you not only reach those goals, but align your goals with your personal “Noble Calling” so that you will feel compelled to move forward, to relentlessly innovate, and catapult to success beyond your wildest dreams.

After years of teaching various participants to accomplish extreme goals in extreme environments, the C13 process was developed, honed, and packaged into a Personal Operations Handbook (POH). By applying the same principles used to teach fighter pilots, airshow performers, and other professionals where performance matters, it will certainly work for you.

You may have a well-defined goal in life already. Or you may not. In either case, C13 helps you build up to your big goal by first focusing on the smaller, individual components necessary to achieve that goal. This building-block approach is used in elite fields such as the Blue Angel winter training, Major League spring training, and even in medical residency programs. These groups all use a similar format to meet the powerful demands of their professions.

Got it? Great. So, what’s an HRO and how are these things related?

An HRO is an organization that has proven successful in avoiding disasters despite being in a high-risk field where accidents can be expected due to complexity. Taking fighter pilots, for example, extreme performance is achieved when tasks are aligned and executed at the highest level, even in life or death situations, thusly categorizing organizations such as TOPGUN and the Blue Angels as HROs.

However, when something catastrophic happens within an HRO, the public’s initial response may be shock and outrage. An insightful observer will later point out how amazing it is that these types of organizations are able to succeed with regularity and somehow avoid failure more often than not.

At CATSHOT, that reasoning is Extreme Performance. These organizations have a clear alignment of Passion, Free Will, and Focus, otherwise known as the Performance Triad ­– which permits them to execute at the highest level while mitigating significant risk.

The HRO theory expands upon these principles and researchers have uncovered five (5) elements that HROs have in common. These traits are essential for avoiding failure or catastrophic events despite operating in extreme conditions and hazardous environments where lives are at stake.

1. Preoccupation with Failure

Within successful HROs, everyone is focused on errors and near-misses, learning from them and figuring out how to prevent them from happening again. Here, attention to detail is critical. Recognizing and fixing problems is everyone’s responsibility and is encouraged and supported by leadership.

Bottom Line: HROs, driven by effective leadership within the organizations, cannot ignore a single flaw or failure, no matter how small, because any deviation from the expected result can and will result in tragedy. Therefore, it is necessary for leaders to address any level of technical-, human-, or process-oriented failure immediately and completely. It is equally important to be somewhat fixated on how things can fail, even if they have not yet.

2. Reluctance to Simplify Interpretations

HROs require the constant asking of “why” question and inviting others with diverse experience to express their opinions. The belief is that the more you’re immersed in something, the harder it is for you to objectively observe and question things that need questioning.

Bottom Line: Ask yourself, “What is your ‘why’?” Most organizations confound themselves with what they do rather than why they do it. The why is usually a much more complicated answer. As such, HROs are complex. They accept and embrace that complexity. HROs do not explain away problems, instead they conduct root cause analysis and reject simple diagnoses. Leverage this new way of thinking to get the right answer!

3. Sensitivity to Operations

An ongoing concern with the unexpected is a distinguishing characteristic of HROs. Hallmark actions include closing loopholes in processes where there is a potential threat to life, maintaining situational awareness, developing teams that speak up and paying attention to the frontline.

Bottom Line: HROs understand that the best picture of the current situation, especially an unexpected one, comes from the frontline. Because frontline employees are “closer” to the work than executive leadership, they are better positioned to recognize failure and identify opportunities for improvement.

4. Commitment to Resilience

HROs employ the concept that things will go wrong that are inevitable and unpredictable, mistakes will be made, and you will get into trouble. However, quickly identifying issues and having structures in place to immediately respond, understanding that minimizing the harm and reducing collateral damage is key to proactivity, will go a long way to mitigating risk.

Bottom Line: Resilience in HROs means the ability to anticipate trouble spots and improvise when the unexpected occurs, which it will. The organization must be able to identify errors for correction, while at the same time innovating solutions within a dynamic environment.

5. Deference to Expertise

Finding and using experts for the given problem in the given time is a core practice for HROs. More specifically, this means recognizing that those closest to the frontline are the experts and empowering them to make decisions when a critical issue arises results in an expeditious mitigation of harm.

Senior leaders of HROs conduct frequent walk-throughs to reinforce good behaviors and discover and fix critical issues. They also meet in daily operational briefs and debriefs where they look back to learn from failures and look forward to predicting and lessening risk.

Bottom Line: Expertise, rather than authority, takes precedence in an HRO. When conditions are high-risk and circumstances change rapidly, on-the-ground subject matter experts (SMEs) are essential for urgent situational assessment and response.

These five principles form a good foundation for the continuous improvement mindset of High Reliability Organizations. Even if your business doesn’t deal in life and death affairs, there are lessons to be learned from those that do.

Much like the CATSHOT 13 and Building a Culture to Win, these principles are worth considering for your own approach to professional improvement and establishing your personal center of excellence.


Originally published at CATSHOT Group.

Rob Ffield

Written by

Former 2x TOPGUN Instructor & Blue Angel Boss. Passionate leader dedicated to providing individuals & corporations with the tools necessary to succeed.

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