Roberts and Rousseau's Characteristics of HROs
HROs maintain low error rates due to how they operate internally, specifically Roberts and Rousseau define eight specific characteristics and three features of HROs.1
HROs have an extreme variety of components, systems, and levels, which is referred to as hypercomplexity. For example, an aircraft carrier has a navigational bridge, air tower, desk personnel, and flight crews, as well as computer systems, binoculars, arresting wires, and the aircrafts. Each of these has its own procedures, training, and hierarchies.
- Tightly coupled
HROs are tightly coupled, there are many components, systems, and levels in the systems, which have mutual interdependence. Moreover, the systems have time dependent processes, specific sequences, designs that allow for only one solution, and little slack. An example of this characteristic can be found in certain types of continuous process.
- Extreme hierarchical differentiation, elaborate control and regulating mechanisms
The multiple levels in the organization each have extreme hierarchical differentiation, elaborate control and regulating mechanisms. For example, the hierarchy of an aircraft carrier is captain, executive officer, department heads, and then enlisted personnel. Decisions, such as when to conclude the day flight operations, move throughout this hierarchy.
HROs have many decision makers in the complex communication networks allowing for redundancy. For example, three people, overseen by the air boss, control the setting of the arresting gear for aircraft recovery.
- Higher degree of accountability
HROs instill a higher degree of accountability than most organizations. Deviations from the standard procedures result in severe consequences. Nuclear reactor operators, for example, have substantial training and are constantly expected to do their tasks correctly. Flight deck personnel are regularly double checked to insure consistency and adherence to procedures.
- Immediate feedback
Immediate feedback on decisions is a regular occurrence in HROs. Quick decision making and feedback are characteristic of their operational decisions. The more time that passes for decisions to be made and implemented results in a higher risk for disaster. For example, should a commercial airliner be directed for landing or should it be deferred until other aircraft are relocated? A successful (or unsuccessful) landing provides immediate feedback of the decision made.
- Compressed time factors
Compressed time factors, sequences of main activities are measured in seconds in HROs. For example, launches and landings of naval aircraft occur in 48 to 60 second intervals.
- Simultaneous critical outcomes
HROS have at least two critical outcomes that happen simultaneously, which indicates the complexity of the operations and inability to modify operational decisions. For example, the takeoffs and landings of airliners are managed by the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system.
In additional to the eight characteristics, HROs have three features.
1. High-reliability organizations are "invisible" until a failure occurs. At this point, the customer (or public) demands change to prevent such an event again. In comparison, failures in organizations that are not high reliability are typically not noticed, as they do not cause catastrophic damage to draw attention from the public.
2. HROs operate at the edge of human capacity. They push to the limits of human capability, thus rely on constant training and frequent rotations are often to preserve efficiency.
3. HROs have diverse constituencies in which the designers are frequently unaware of the human ability (or inability) to operating the designed system. The designers make the assumption that people can operate any system they design. These three features combined with the eight characteristics "create distinctive problems and methodological difficulties. These problems are different largely in degree from research problems in other complex organizations."1
1. Roberts, Karlene H. and Denise M. Rousseau. 1989. Research in Nearly Failure-Free, High-Reliability Organizations: Having the Bubble. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. 36(2): 132-139.