Are you managing and leading a Highly Reliable Organization?

Many companies describe their operations and reliability programs in kind and optimistic views. Looking back at my 30 years in operations I realized I did the same. Part of a culture to establish a reassuring feeling that we have it covered and nothing will go wrong.

Companies encounter numerous and often unpredictable challenges that stress our creativity and imaginations. Falling into the mode of complacency often spells danger; we find ourselves paralyzed with fear and confusion leading to a lack of survival. Some refer to this as, “Paralysis by Analysis”, where we analyze what is happening and try to make sense of it but we take no action or the wrong action too late.

Who manages the unpredictable the best? We can learn from some known highly reliable organizations, hospital emergency rooms, airline pilots, airline engine manufacturers, aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants for example. Not surprisingly the have less than their fair share of accidents. Many industries study them and attempt to learn from them. So what do they all have in common? Mindfulness, purposefulness: the culture and power to detect and then act on even small indications, signals of impending danger. Ear to the ground listening for small leading indicators of emanate danger. A healthy respect for failure and a quest to understand what they don’t understand.

Many leaders, because we are socially programed to drive towards a predictable outcome, move along monotonously training people and planning for the same kinds of situations or events. Repetitive training, non-dynamic processes that are passed along as tribal knowledge. Over the years these processes or systems become diluted, modified and the real “why this is important” has been forgotten. The world continues to change every minute and we need to adapt.

The reality is most organizations face all types of unpredictable challenges of all sizes. They burden people with daily stress thus stifling creativity and imagination. People always seem to be fighting issues or experiencing unnecessary collateral damage from a single event. This compounding effect has a sustained negative effect on any culture.

For a company or an operation leader in today’s ever-changing, highly competitive and dynamic business environment to operate with the assumption something is secure and stable becomes dangerous. When the unpredictable happens and we are not prepared, it has a paralyzing effect on people and many times significant failure is the result.

Organizations that are considered highly reliable organization have a few things in common. They are not only fixated on failures but they are committed to resilience and a heightened sensitivity to operations. They constantly review and look for ways to get early warning indications of potential events. They establish a culture that has a heightened sensitivity and a healthy feeling of dissatisfaction with how the operation is performing. There is a heightened sense of urgency and they act when there is the smallest deviation of critical control points. They operate in a mindful manner.

It often bothers me when leadership would say “keep it simple stupid”. A very popular phrase but it again reinforces the earlier point that we are socially programed to try and be predictable. Keep it simple would imply that the business or the operation is simple and unidirectional. This can be an indication that the leaders are underestimating the complexity of the operation and the culture it operates in. We know that businesses and operations are not at all stagnate nor predictable. They are extremely active and often create their own environment. Just like in nature, the complicated ecosystem, the company culture is an interdependent and complex environment. In the absence of acknowledging how messy reality really is, managing the unpredictability will miss its target.

As a young engineer, I had a very influential leader tell me, “You can only see what we are prepared to see.” I did not understand the significance of this comment until I was in a position leading a significant operational change. An outside consultant with zero knowledge of our operations, but with experience in looking at systems differently, transformed my thinking. We technically knew our operation but we were not prepared to see the potential failures that were all around us. We were only seeing what we really only wanted to see.

Highly Reliable Organizations rely on expertise and look for those who have a different lens, those that are prepared to see the operation in a different light. They realize that a unbiased view is crucial to either validate previous assumptions or identify gaps.

On the flip side organization that are not highly reliable tend to isolate failure, blame someone and not learn from the event. Think about the number of failures that have happened just after shift exchange, the dreaded handoff. Usually the on-duty crew is blamed and disciplinary action with them is taken. A highly reliable organization would look at the systemic failure of communication, visibility of key parameters, eliminate tribal knowledge within the groups and not just assume it was an isolated event.

The reality is no matter how many people are involved, if the failure is spotted early on when they are small, they are easier to recover from.

Organizations need to embrace the ever-changing landscape of business and operations. Many times, groups gain a level of confidence because they have established plans. I view plans like a budget, directionally correct but they need to be fluid and relatively speaking are. Plans are great for laying our aspirational goals or developing signals, direction, cause for people to collaborate and come together. They can give the illusion that they grasp everything and are rock solid. It seems that once plans are established people stop looking for things that disconfirm it.

When plans are developed for crisis situations they can create conflicts. Once the plan is established it can deceive us to thinking we know more than we do. It can be out dated and vague causing people to postpone actions because the failure does not match the plan. Have you ever heard “What was I supposed to in this kind of situation”? This is where we can only see what we are prepared to see. Highly reliable organizations look to bring in outside points of view, people with experience in looking at potential failures and systemic interdependencies.

When we think, we know it all because we have been doing it for years, this becomes a serious risk to the organization. Consider wildland firefighters: Did you know they are the most likely to get killed or injured in their tenth year on the job? That’s about the time they start thinking they’ve seen it all.

OpEx Realization Group has over 100 years of combined experience. We have seen and have been part of many successful organization some of them considered to be a highly reliable organization. Our expertise is in partnering with organizations to challenge how they look at their operations. What does your emergency plans look like? How does your reliability program and spare parts system support crisis management? How does your change management process support the company culture?

Our practical experience has been forged through many crisis successes but more importantly the failures. These experiences have prepared us to look for and respect the dynamics of failure and the interdependent interactions with the culture.

Simply put, we are capable to help you see what you previously were not prepared to see. We utilize our pragmatic approach coupled with our genuine desire to make your future success our business.

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