Book Review: Organizing for Reliability

Organizing for Reliability: A Guide for Research and Practice, Edited by Ranga Ramanujam and Karlene H. Roberts. Published by Stanford Press,; price is $75.
Reviewed by Patrick Roberts, Virginia Tech

One approach to disasters is to look for their roots in organizational phenomena. Organizations can be formal and discrete, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or they can come in groups such as Puerto Rico’s emergency management system. After a disaster, people often say that the organizations failed.

The study of high reliability organizations attempts to analyze why some organizations manage to perform well and avoid failure. Organizing for Reliability collects essays that define what high reliability is, and what questions to pursue going forward. The subtitle of the book is “A Guide for Research and Practice.” The book is written in a scholarly tone, but the writing is clear enough and the recommendations focused enough that practitioners should be able to find ideas to take back to their organizations.

High reliability organizations (HRO) are ones that maintain high levels of operational continuity and safety while performing their tasks well. Typically, they exist in areas where failure is not an option, or where an accident would be too catastrophic for the organization to survive intact. Among the most frequently studied high reliability organizations are airplanes, aircraft carriers, hospitals, and power plants. Unlike other organizations, most HROs do not easily make tradeoffs between expanded capacity and errors. For example, a manufacturing company can accept an increase in faulty products if the total number of products produced increases. Hospitals cannot treat people the same way. High reliability organizations also do not have the option to learn through trial and error because failure is not an option. Companies testing self-driving cars are running up against the reality that their cars are expected to be free of fatalities.

How do HRO’s succeed given the high expectations? And how can aspiring HROs responsible for managing natural hazards learn from successful cases? Organizing for Reliability summarizes the literature showing that HROs defer to expertise, have managers who focus on the big picture and allow operators to make operational decisions, train continuously, and communicate safety information in multiple ways. Finally, HROs use the time-tested strategy of redundancy-if one crucial system fails, they have multiple backups.

Despite the progress in understanding HROs, there is still room for research on analyzing how they operate and what features are portable to new contexts. Masden and Desai (118) show that the pursuit of reliability as a goal is actuality in conflict with other goals such as speed, efficiency, and innovation. They recommend that organizations adopt a collective mindfulness to keep reliability as a goal. Schulman and Roe’s chapter proposes that reliability is increasingly a property of an inter-organizational network, and not just a single organization. The implication is that when victims of disaster blame FEMA, they should really blame the emergency management system.

Most studies of high reliability focus on organizations that perform well under trying conditions without missing a beat. Think of an aircraft carrier that roams with world without a crash or a breakdown. But when we ask organizations in emergency management to be reliable, we ask more than we ask of an aircraft carrier. Reliability could also mean resilience—bouncing back quickly from inevitable events such as floods or denial of service cyber attacks. Reliability could also refer to organizations that avoid potential catastrophes, such as a looming financial crisis. The study of high reliability organizations is poised to extend beyond the study of technical systems into new realms, perhaps overlapping into resilience studies and the study of complex networked systems.

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