Monday, December 23, 2013

SeminarFest Highlights Using the Safety Principles of High-Reliability Organizations

At ASSE’s SeminarFest in January 2014, T. Shane Bush, president of BushCo Inc., will present “Using the Safety Principles of High-Reliability Organizations.” Commonly exemplified by nuclear power plants and military bases, high-reliability organizations (HROs) are companies with high potential for significant unwanted outcomes that have relatively few incidents in comparison to their amounts of risk. In his seminar, Bush will share how the principles of such organizations can be applied to any organization to improve safety as well as productivity.

“A lot of people say, ‘It sounds good for a commercial nuclear power plant, but what does this have to do with me producing golf carts in the middle of Tennessee?’” Bush says, explaining that a lower-risk organization, such as a factory, can always learn from companies that are continuously faced with the potential of an adverse incident.

Bush will discuss the five principles of HROs (preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience and deference to expertise) and how they can be applied to other organizations to create a business model that promotes safety while also enhancing productivity, quality and reputation.

1. Preoccupation With Failure
While the first principle’s name may be misleading, Bush explains that HROs are not actually preoccupied with failing but are instead preoccupied with not failing. By constantly looking for ways in which failure may occur, organizations can not only anticipate and mitigate problems, but they can also increase production. Safety professionals must study interactions between people and processes to predict unwanted outcomes due to issues regarding miscommunication, human error and system process breaks. Knowing how failure may occur can allow organizations to plan failure into their processes, eliminating the need to stall operations while finding a solution to a problem when one arises.

2. Reluctance to Simplify Interpretations
“When bad news or anything out of the norm is presented, most people, even in management, tend to want to simplify the interpretation of it,” says Bush. “In other words, they downplay it. But HROs are exactly the opposite.” Safety professionals in HROs often amplify minor concerns, a concept foreign to some based on the high likelihood that a minor problem will never cause significant harm. However, Bush warns that even small issues should be responded to as if they were significant threats. In many organizations, such as at nuclear power plants, a minor problem may not necessarily pose a safety hazard, yet failure to respond to the issue can damage the company’s reputation. By having what Bush describes as “a strong response to a weak signal,” these organizations protect their workers as well as their standing.

3. Sensitivity to Operations
HROs are generally very mindful of their operations. Understanding how every process in a given facility works allows safety professionals to identify how those processes may couple to create a significant event. According to Bush, focusing on things like regulations and requirements can be detrimental to safety professionals if it prevents them from analyzing the operational interactions that often cause serious incidents.

4. Commitment to Resilience
To ensure that an organization can bounce back after an event, it is important to keep operations flexible. Bush notes that managers should ask themselves, “How do I make sure my operations are not so rigid to regulations and requirements that if the least little interruption occurs, it’s not going to throw things into a tailspin?” HROs are always prepared to respond to failures and do not hesitate in developing new response tactics. 

5. Deference to Expertise
“HROs depend heavily on the people who know the system best and that doesn’t necessarily mean the managers, leaders or directors,” Bush says, noting that expertise most often refers to the person who is most familiar with the task at hand. Rather than relying on management to resolve issues, in HROs, the individuals who work directly with the process in which a problem has surfaced are consulted. Similarly, the expertise safety professionals have to offer is valued highly, and safety professionals in HROs often have as much influence in business decisions as do production managers.

Bush notes that because safety, production, quality and reputation are all interrelated aspects of an organization, companies are most successful when they apply HRO principles to every part of their operations. “If you want to implement this only in your safety arena, then you will have limited success,” he says. “Instead, take it on as a business model.”

Involving all employees in the process is also a crucial element of implementing HRO principles in an organization. “Your workers, whether you know it or not, are compensating for inadequacies in your process constantly,” Bush says. “Workers are the only part of the process that can create safety.”

SeminarFest will be held Jan. 25 to Feb. 1, 2014, in Las Vegas, NV. Register today at