E11: Summary of Culture and High Reliability


In this Summary of Episode 11, our resident High Reliability expert, Dr Ralph Soule, gives an overview of the context, the study and some of the key problems facing high-risk and high-reliability approaches to organizational design. 

Ralph mentions that Bierly and Spender (1995) provide a description of submariner culture and how it comes about through formal in informal practices. The author’s note that submariner’s culture is risk-averse, shared between different ships, and the result of constant training in theory, operations, and responding to emergencies. The training emphasizes specific terminology, communication behaviors, formal hierarchy, and detailed knowledge of system design and performance. This is followed by Ralph drawing on his own extensive scientific and applied knowledge of operating high-risk systems to add that nuclear operator culture has many components not mentioned by Bierly and Spender such as:

* Balancing strict compliance with orders and procedures with questioning attitude

* Balancing respect for authority and knowledge with watch team backup

* Transparency (internal and external assessments and audits, letters to the Admiral)

* Critiques (where much tacit knowledge and assumptions are revealed, but often not written down)

* High standards for technical skill (certifications and training)

* Articulation of operator principles

* Standard operation procedures

If you would like to hear more from Ralph, or about High Reliability in general, do listen to our full episode. For those wishing to learn more, we are going to have another episode on High Reliability (Episode 21) with two high-profile scholars/practitioners (people in HRO are, let's face it, mainly practitioners!) - Dr Todd Conklin and US Navy Admiral (retired) Tom Mercer.