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History and Overview of HROs

History of HROs

Engineers, statisticians, as well as researchers in human factors, psychology, and sociology, have explored ways to enhance reliability.1 Researchers were originally interested in only the disaster aftermath, rather than disaster prevention. They often studied how a community redevelops after destruction, such as the Three Mile Island accident, rather than how the event could have been avoided.1

Perrow was an industrial accidents examiner who contributed to the Three Mile Island investigation, and subsequently published Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies in 1984 (and again in 1999).1,2 In the book he concluded that technologies, such as commercial nuclear power plants and modern militaries, are so dangerous they should be shut down altogether. Perrow states that "high-risk organizations" are hazardous because they are tightly coupled (events occur successively without hesitation) and complexly coupled (events are so complexly connected that their causal relations cannot be determined). Perrow's findings are now known as Normal Accident Theory (NAT).1,2

Around the same time as the publication of Perrow's book, other researchers were investigating ways that high-risk organizations could reduce risk while maintaining highly reliable operations, in spite of unlikely successes as hypothesized by Perrow. The researchers argued that although a small number of the technologies Perrow referred to perhaps should not exist in ideal world, on overthrow of them is impracticable. Instead, actions should be taken to insure that these technologies operate as close to error free as possible. Furthermore, the researchers showed that organizations such as banks, which are considered relatively low technology (or risk) organizations, can also cause devastation, and often to the comparable degrees as high technology (risk) organizations. 1 This research set the foundation for future studies in what is now referred to as high reliability organizations (HROs).

Introduction to HROs

High reliability organizations (HROs) function in a hazardous environment, yet succeed in keeping their error rate low. If a failure does occur, it is often catastrophic. However, not all high-risk organizations are highly reliable; a subset of high-risk organizations can be referred to as highly reliable. If, for tens of thousands of times, the organization could have experienced a catastrophic failure, but it did not, then the organization is "high reliability."3.

Research has been conducted in many HROs such as:

These organizations maintain low error rates due to how they operate internally, specifically there are eight specific characteristics and three features of HROs.11


1. Roberts, K. H., K. Yu, and D. van Stralen. 2004. 'Patient Safety as an Organizational Systems Issue: Lessons from a Variety of Industries.' In Patient Safety Handbook, edited by B. J. Youngberg and M. Hatlie, pp. 169-86. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers

2. Perrow, C. 1984. Normal accidents. New York: Basic Books

3. Roberts, Karlene H. 1990. Some Characteristics of One Type of High Reliability Organization. Organization Science. 1(2):160-176. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2635060.

4. Helmreich, Robert L. 2000. On error management: lessons from aviation. BMJ. 320: 781-5

5. Bierly III, P.E, and J.C. Spender. 1995. Culture and High Reliability Organizations: The Case of the Nuclear Submarine. Journal of Management. 21(4): 639-6S6

6. Frederickson, H. George and Todd R. LaPorte. 2002. Airport Security, High Reliability, and the Problem of Rationality. Public Administration Review, Special Issue. 62:32-43.

7. Rochlin, Gene I., Todd R. La Porte, and Karlene H. Roberts. 1987. The CEO Refresher - The Self-Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea. Naval War College Review. 40(4): 76-90.

8. Weick, Karl E. and Karlene H. Roberts. 1993. Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks. Administrative Science Quarterly. 38(3): 357-381. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2393372.

9. Babb, John and Reginald Ammons. 1996. BOP Inmate Transport: A High Reliability Organization. Corrections Today. 58:108-10.

10. Roth, Emilie M., Jordan Multer, and Thomas Raslear. 2006. Shared Situation Awareness as a Contributor to High Reliability Performance in Railroad Operations. Organization Studies. 27(7): 967-987.

11. 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.