How reliable is your organisation?

How reliable is your organisation?

The fourth annual Saacosh High Reliability Organising (HRO) conference was held at Emperor’s Palace on May 21 and 22. CLAIRE RENCKEN reports

A high reliability organisation is defined as one that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity. This two-day conference was jam-packed with informative sessions from each of the presenters, on how to go about striving to achieve this.

Greg Heger and Brett Solomon, both business development managers at Saacosh, facilitated the proceedings and provided valuable introductory information to set the stage for the guest speakers.

Heger spoke about how conscious or mindful leadership is a key component in HRO. “Although the concept of mindfulness has been around since the beginning of time, the psychological construct of mindfulness was defined by Ellen Langer (PhD) in 1977.

“Langer, who conducts mindfulness research at Harvard University, identified the key elements of mindfulness as:
‘being actively alert in the present; being open to new and different information; having the ability to create new categories when processing information; having an awareness of multiple perspectives; and attention to process rather than outcome, which usually results in better outcomes’,” he explained.

From left: Rear Admiral Tom Mercer, Brett Solomon, Greg Heger, Francois Smith (managing director at Saacosh) and Bert Slagmolen.  On day two, Solomon was excited to share information regarding the HRO Academy launch. “Together with the International HRO Institute, we are excited to launch a local academy that will provide senior leaders with an in-depth understanding of the hallmarks of HRO and how to develop a resilient safety culture. The focus will be on how to integrate the HRO principles into a safety strategy, as well as the implementation into daily operations. In addition, it will show how to apply mindful leadership strategies and processes in a safety culture change process.”

The first guest speaker to take the floor on both days was retired United States Navy officer, Rear Admiral Tom Mercer. He was an A-7E carrier pilot and second commanding officer of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson. He served for over 13 years in six commanding officer positions during his 33-year naval career.

In addition, Mercer was superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California. He was also executive director of the Centre for Risk Mitigation at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mercer shared some of his (and his team’s) survival challenges as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and other combat situations during the Cold War era, demonstrating how the principles of HRO were applied in these high-risk environments. During the course of his naval career, Mercer experienced unique HRO leadership challenges and opportunities to “manage the unexpected”.

He also shared a number of real-life case studies showing the application of the principles of HRO. This illustrative learning experience exposed participants to some never-before-seen footage of the health and safety challenges on a modern-day warship and how the application of HRO principles, in this high-risk and complex environment, enabled the safe and highly successful execution of missions.

Next up was Bert Slagmolen from the Netherlands. He is a consultant and managing partner at Apollo13. He has been active in the consultancy business since 1979 and focuses mainly on counselling organisations on change towards higher performance and reliability. Slagmolen started his professional career as a researcher and consultant in the field of industrial automation and flexible production concepts.

Step by step he broadened his scope to organisations in the not-for-profit sector and government agencies. Later he focused more on information and communication technology (ICT) development and management of change issues. Since 2002, he has been primarily devoted to projects in the field of HRO and mindful organising. He is involved in various international projects, in the public and private sectors, concerning management development and cultural change in relation to improving reliable performance.

Slagmolen is also co-founder of two international networks of HRO professionals that are active in Europe and the United States of America (USA).

Under his guidance, attendees explored the culture of their organisations along two very definite lines. First, they completed a questionnaire based on the book: Managing the Unexpected, by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. With this questionnaire, HRO concepts were made more tangible, so that participants could get a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their organisational cultures in relation to safety and reliability.

Second, the HRO cultural ladder was used to discuss personal behaviour regarding safety and reliability.

Slagmolen also used some interesting case studies on health and safety to give concrete examples of what HRO looks like in daily practice. He showed how quite a few organisations have implemented new ways of organising to make HRO work. These practices deal with individual leadership, team dynamics and new organisational routines that support the realisation of an HRO culture.

Perhaps one of the most important things to come out of the conference is to remember that there is no quick fix when it comes to HRO. It is a process. It’s about continuous improvement.

Finally, it takes a long time to change company cultures and strategies in order to implement HRO. So it’s best to start today. You know what they say, a job begun …

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