High Reliability vs Hearts and Minds


High Reliability vs Hearts and Minds


We have provided numerous articles over the years on the benefits of a healthy safety culture and on how good safety leaders build the culture you deserve.

However, an excellent article by Andrew Hopkins in a recent edition of the SIA newsletter OHS Professional (LINK TO ARTICLE?) raised some good questions about “hearts and minds” programs, which he attributed to safety culture programs, versus high reliability organisations.

My interest in achieving high reliability meant this subject was worthy of investigation.

Let’s start with what we mean by the term High Reliability Organisation.

High Reliability Organisation

A high reliability organisation (HRO) is an organisation that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes for long periods of time in an environment where serious incidents are expected due to risk factors and complexity. Some examples include aircraft carriers and nuclear power facilities.

In other words, high reliability organisations achieve sustained safe operations in challenging situations where lesser organisations fail. I think we would all like to achieve this status for our respective organisations.

So, let’s look at some of the attributes of high reliability organisations, which Andrew Hopkins mentions in his article.

High Reliability Organisations:

  1. Assume rare but serious events can happen.
  2. Identify all serious failure modes eg possible catastrophes.
  3. Described the circumstances and how such catastrophes could occur.
  4. Adopted strict standards to avoid similar failures.
  5. Monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) designed to steer the organisation clear of such risks.
  6. React strongly and immediately to even minor breaches of standards designed to avert catastrophes.
  7. Share and re-tell stories of failures and near-misses to keep old events fresh in the mind of all workers.

For example, the aviation industry is “obsessed” with the risk of mid-air collisions, and air traffic controllers and pilots react strongly to any real or perceived break-down of air craft separation.

High reliability organisations are obsessed with compliance with critical standards

I recall flying a light aircraft into Sydney Harbour some years ago, with an airways clearance instruction e.g. “remain at 2,000ft, stay east of the bridge (Sydney Harbour Bridge) and north of the south shore”.

Upon approaching Sydney Harbour Bridge, I duly turned left to fly out of the harbour and continue my flight down the NSW coast, but my turn was not tight enough to stay over the water and I momentarily tracked over a small promontory.

 Plane approaching Sydney Harbour Bridge

The air traffic controller immediately came on the radio to question my position, against the airways clearance. I also received a phone call when I arrived back in Melbourne asking “were our instructions clear?” and “was there a reason for not complying with the clearance?”

Air traffic controllers never allow even minor breaches of air separation standards

I admire the; clarity, consistency and tenacity of air traffic controllers in their efforts never to let air separation standards drop.

This is high reliability in action!

This is very different to many organisations where minor incidents which didn’t result in damage or loss are not treated seriously.

Safety Culture Program

The Safety Action view of a good safety culture, per our safety leadership course includes in part the following principles:

  1. No cherry-picking which safety rules you follow.
  2. Safe = “compliance with company standards.”
  3. If you disagree with a safety rule, it is okay to challenge it, but win or lose you must follow the rule.
  4. Show a great sense of urgency when safety concerns / incidents arise.
  5. Repeat and enforce safety rules so they become habit.
  6. Every observed breach is intervened – immediately.
  7. Focus on “at-risk” behaviours (which could cause serious injury).


I think you will agree the above culture principles looks a lot like high reliability organisation’s approach. Therefore, a good safety culture program can be consistent with high reliability principles, if properly applied.


Where Do Hearts and Minds Programs Fit?

Good consultation and co-operative working relationships are always beneficial, and some of the efforts to achieve this may look like “hearts and minds” programs.


However, if the key serious injury risks are focused on and standards relentlessly pursued even where minor breaches occur, organisations can achieve high reliability with effective safety culture programs, and work on the hearts and minds.


For a copy of our Safety Leadership training brochure, or to book a course call Zara on T. 03 9690 6311.


Disciplinary Action is Not Bullying

The Fair Work Commission has again ruled that disciplinary action, even when inconsistent, is not bullying.


As usual, these claims appear to arise where the working relationship and trust between colleagues and or managers has broken down.


The worker in this case believed she had a right to disobey instructions if she believed they were unreasonable. However, the FWC Commissioner stated “workers must follow their supervisor’s directions unless they are unlawful or totally unreasonable” e.g. no reasonable employer would have issued the direction.


Clearly, the people in this business are not familiar with rule No.1 in the previous article e.g. No cherry-picking the rules.

Bullying Allegations - No Right to Walk-Off

The Federal Court fined 19 workers $1,000 each in February this year, after they walked off a work site over bullying allegations. This demonstrates, once again, that trust and respect between workers and supervisors is so important. Otherwise workers over-react to allegations, whether they are true or not.

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