Learning Lab Denmark - INCUBEus

High Reliability Organisations

The theory of High Reliability Organisations is based on the belief that accidents can be prevented through good organisational design and management. In contrast to Normal Accident Theory, which claims that it is impossible to prevent severe accidents in sufficiently complex system, High Reliability Theory has a more optimistic approach and emphasises the good things that can be done instead.

Safety is the primary organisational objective for High Reliability Organisations. Redundancies, simulations, a strict organisational structure, decentralised decision-making, learning from mistakes, mindfulness, good training, and experienced personnel are seen as important requisites for being are highly reliable organisation.

But all these 'nice to haves' - are they really in place in these so-called High Reliability Organisations? Numerous studies of nuclear power plants, chemical plants and in air traffic control systems show that safety is not the primary objective. Rather, it is effectiveness due to production pressures. Other studies show that organisations learn all right, but they learn the wrong things (Reason 1990); they learn to cut corners, that disasters are rare, and that they are not likely to be vulnerable as a consequence of their own risky enterprise.

Further reading
Reason, J. (1990). Human Error, Cambridge University Press, New York.

LaPorte, T., Consolini, P.M. (1991). "Working in Practice but Not in Theory: Theoretical Challenge of High Reliability", Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 1:19-47.

Roberts, Karlene (1993). New Challenges to Understanding Organizations, Macmillan, New York.

Weick, K.E. (1987). "Organizational Culture as a Source of High Reliability", California Management Review, 29:112-127.

For a critique of HRO-theory, see Clarke, L. (1993). "Drs. Pangloss and Strangelove Meet Organizational Theory: High Reliability Organizations and Nuclear Weapons Accidents", Sociological Forum, 8:675-689.

Comment this page

Nine Technologies

A. Air Transport
B. Buildings
C. Land Transport
D. Marine Transport
E. Bridges and Dams
F. Oil Tankers
G. Chemical Industry
H. Medical Industry
I. Nuclear Industry

Nine Theories

Quantitative Risk Assessment
Decision Analysis
Cost-benefit Analysis
Normal Accident Theory
High Reliability Organisations
Risk communication
Arena Theory
Cultural Theory

Five Categories

Hazard (0-1000)
Range (km2)
Fear Factor (0-10)
Media Effect (0-100)