What is a High Reliability Organization?

Learn the Key Methodologies Reliable Organizations Follow

Commercial and military aviation can't really afford a mistake can they? A plane crash costs millions of dollars and many lives. Nuclear power plants can't really afford a mistake can they? Amusement parks can't really afford rides that fail can they? These industries have had to embrace the methods and tools of high reliability.

Hospitals can't really afford medical mistakes, yet about a half a million people die each year due to preventable infections, medication errors and surgical complications.

What are the Methods of High Reliability Organizations?

High reliability organizations embrace three key methodologies:

  • Lean to simplify and streamline operations.
  • Six Sigma to optimize operations.
  • Change management to make sure changes stick.

I think we can agree that even the best of changes meet resistance during implementation and sometimes fade away within a few months. The reasons for these failures are varied, but often it's a simple lack of change management. I have discussed the essential methods and tools of Lean Six Sigma extensively in my monthly ezines over the last 15 years, but I haven't spent nearly enough time on change management.

3 Stages of Change

On the surface, change management is pretty simple. There are three stages of change:

  1. Current state - Where are we now?
  2. Transition - How do we get from current state to desired state? How do we make sure that we align strategy, process, organization (i.e., people) and technology to get to the desired state?
  3. Future state - Where do we want to get to? What will it look, sound and feel like when we have achieved our goals?

It doesn't matter if the change involves implementing Lean Six Sigma or some other change, getting from here to there is never a straight line.

Ask yourself: "What percentage of results depend on people changing how they work?" If you're implementing a medical records system in a hospital, the answer is probably 90 percent. If you are changing an information system to prevent a certain kind of input error, the answer might only be 5 percent. The more the change depends on people, the more thought needs to be given to the care and feeding of the change. Everything depends on how the culture accepts, adopts or adapts the change.

Quality * Acceptance = Effectiveness

It doesn't matter how great a change might be, if the culture doesn't accept it, it is doomed.

How Cultures Adopt, Adapt or Reject Change

There's over 50 years of research into how cultures adopt, adapt or reject change. While many people believe it begins with leadership, leadership commitment is not enough. Often, the acceptance of change depends on the informal leaders in an organization—the few centers of influence that everyone turns to for direction. It might be a supervisor or just a wise worker who has seen it all. All changes need to be crafted to allow for:

  • Trialability - How easy is it to test drive the change?
  • Simplicity - How difficult is it to understand?
  • Relative benefit - What does it offer over and above what I'm already doing?
  • Compatibility - How well does it match our environment?
  • Observability - How easy is it to observe the benefits of the change?

I heard one consultant describe the typical change management process as memo, demo, go live. Get an email on Monday, a demo on Tuesday and go live on Wednesday. It should be obvious that this is insufficient to ensure adoption.

Change Saturation

It should also be obvious that too many changes happening at the same time can be overwhelming. Changes need to be woven into the culture, not carpet bombed over it.

I often say that Lean Six Sigma is easy; people are hard. Creating a culture that embraces change takes time. There is no on/off switch.

In future articles we'll explore change management in more detail.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2016 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537, support@qimacros.com."

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