Training for High Reliability

If we get this wrong, people may die.

Some people go to work every day and face the reality of life and death.

Maybe more than you think.

The High Reliability Organization

In 1984 Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe set out to explain why some organizations – really, what we would call “teams” today – work in the face of catastrophe every day, yet make relatively few mistakes.

Their work spawned the idea of the “High Reliability Organization.”

In High Reliability Organizations things have to be done right or people face the risk of injury or death.

Weick and Sutcliffe studied some “usual suspects:” aircraft carrier crews, nuclear power plant operators, air traffic controllers.

No question about it: In every one of those cases, failure can have literally fatal consequences.

Using those standards, we can apply “High Reliability” to a fairly wide variety of tasks, functions and jobs:

  • Any place in the health care delivery system where drugs are dispensed.
  • The emergency OR
  • “Flame jumping” firefighters
  • Ambulance crews

Who Is “High Reliability”

Notice the difference between “…any place in the health care delivery system where drugs are dispensed…” and “nurses.”

Although nursing is an undeniably important and task-specific function, using “people may die” as our standard for High Reliability shifts the application to only those interactions where people may, in fact, die.

The point? Not everyone is “high reliability.”

No disrespect intended to those of us whose workday may not involve staring into the abyss of death. But “high reliability” is a very outcome-specific concept.

It applies only to those tasks, jobs and functions where failure creates dire consequences.

The Nature of Dire Consequences

We’ve focused so far, perhaps morbidly, on the highest levels of danger people may encounter in the workplace.

Our purpose, though, is to train our concentration on outcomes.

We do this because it is very likely that someone in your organization operates somewhere in the “highly reliable” zone and you may or may not be aware of it.

If we simply crew “circles of reliability,” you could affix the various functions in your organization accordingly.

A “circle of reliability” might consist of concentric rings organized in the order of descending consequence. The closer to the center, the more dire the consequences and thus the more reliable the operator.

Ranging out from the center, we might have:

  • Loss of life or injury
  • Exposure to excessive liability
  • Economic or financial loss
  • Damage to public reputation
  • Minor embarrassment

You can intuitively see that the closer to the center of our circle, the less frequent the event. The further out, the more frequent.

Even in high mortality organizations like the military, the incidence of death is much lower than that of minor blunders or inconveniences.

Training for High Reliability

We begin this conversation about reliability at a fairly high level, and for good cause.

Training for high reliability is a very specialized activity that probably differs from any learning or training you’ve done (unless you’ve trained carrier flight crews).

It involves:

  • Evaluating reliability in jobs, tasks and functions
  • Creating a “Reliability Framework” for your organization
  • Developing training around the “Reliability Framework”
  • Managing carefully so you don’t wreck “High Reliability” teams you’ve worked so hard to create

High Reliability Resources

Our High Reliability White Paper
High Reliability Training in Bullet Points
High Reliability Training Video