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High Reliability is Not Limited to High Risk

Author: Critical Reliability Concepts


My wife and I recently downsized to a brand-new condo. Along with fresh paint and a few other personal touches, purchasing new window treatments was high on our list of move-in priorities. After diligent consumer research (and yes, influenced by a fairly intense advertising campaign), we chose to deal with the task.

The experience was exactly as advertised; not only was the initial customer experience thorough and professional, but when we discovered that there was a slight discrepancy regarding color selection, the company accepted full responsibility for the error. They replaced about $2,000 worth of product – without hesitation.

I’m not writing this to endorse a product or company. In fact, I never would have gone beyond a “thank you”, but when I came across an article in the May 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine about the tremendous success of this company and its founder, Jay Steinfeld, I had to take a closer look.

Five Principles of HROs

Although the article never mentions “High Reliability Organizations” (HROs), what Steinfeld mobilizes in his business are in fact, the five principles of HROs outlined by Weike & Sutcliffe in Managing the Unexpected¹.

1. Preoccupation with Failure: When made aware of the problem, the Customer Service Department was completely focused on getting it right, and unrelenting in that pursuit.

2. Reluctance to Simplify: Without getting bogged down by the details of this very unique case, it would have been a convenient solution to find a pigeon hole in which to place my problem. For example, give the customer a “take it or leave it” resolution, and move on. This did not happen to me, and it undoubtedly cost the company in the short term, but the long term benefits of being reluctant to simplify the problem will outweigh the short term gain through greater customer satisfaction, loyalty, and those invaluable word of mouth endorsements.

3. Sensitivity to Operations: Steinfeld states, “If we want to get to the truth, we have to hear the truth”. This could be straight out of Weike & Sutcliffe.

4. Commitment to Resilience: “I’m risk averse; I hate making mistakes”, says Steinfeld. He learned to overcome that fear by recognizing that the consequences of failure are seldom catastrophic – a lesson he now shares with his employees. “You don’t have to fear the mistake. It will never kill you”, he says. One of the five HRO principles is accepting that yes, mistakes will happen, but true HROs will not allow mistakes to disable them.

5. Deference to Expertise: In the interview, Steinfeld says that he tells new employees that he expects them to question his decisions. There is no clearer example of management deferring to the expertise of those on the front lines, than this invitation to challenge the boss’s decisions.

The principles that make an organization “highly reliable” can certainly be adopted, with great success and profitability, by other industries as well. In fact, every organization can benefit from increasing reliability in the manner demonstrated here.

What We Can Learn From HROs

When I read the Inc. article, the reason for their success – on a personal and corporate level – clearly came into focus. Steinfeld has figured out, either intentionally or just through luck, that the benefits of being an HRO do not need to be limited to high risk industries such as aviation or healthcare; they can be achieved in retail with very profitable results.

Aviation is an industry that carries enormously high risks; people who work in any industry associated with life or death consequences may bristle at comparisons to the customer service/retail industry. However, just as healthcare has often been resistant to accepting lessons from other high risk industries like aviation, this example merely bolsters the assertion that these principles work universally.

¹ Weick, Karl E., and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.


Contributed by Critical Reliability Concepts.

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