High Reliability Organizations and Law Firms

by | Aug 30, 2023

High Reliability Organizations (“HRO”) are institutions that operate in complex, hazardous environments, making few mistakes (i.e., medical errors, air traffic errors) over long periods of time. HROs have existed since the 1980s in the aircraft carrier, air traffic control, and nuclear power industries.

While those industries are obviously complex and hazardous, there are other industries that impact lives and face similar complexities. We believe the legal industry is one of those.

When an individual retains a lawyer, they expect their lawyer and the experts that lawyer hires will protect them from further harm as they navigate the process to hold another party accountable for their actions. We at Verus are mindful of this expectation, which drives each department and employee to reflect on their processes and look for any opportunities to improve them in service of the law firms we work with and their clients.

No matter how small a part we play in the work that must be done to obtain justice,  the fact is that each organization and person is just as responsible for the clients’ overall success as an executive leading the company or the trial attorney sitting first chair at trial.

We at Verus believe that we much each recognize our our impacts on the the lives and livelihoods of the people we serve  and remain vigilant for opportunities to improve processes to avoid errors and delays and thus ensure the best outcomes.

Would your law firm benefit from taking the same approach?

The DNA of an HRO

There are five distinguishing characteristics of an High Reliability Organization:

  1. Preoccupation with failure

HROs treat anomalies as symptoms of a problem within the system. The organizational weaknesses that contribute to minor errors can also contribute to larger problems, so errors are reported promptly, allowing root causes to be identified and fixed.

  1. Reluctance to simplify interpretations

High reliability organizations take deliberate steps to understand both the work environment generally and specific situations. They are cognizant that the operating environment is often complex, so they look across system boundaries to determine the path of problems and value a diversity of experience and opinions.

  1. Sensitivity to operations

HROs are sensitive to unexpected changed conditions. They monitor their systems’ safety, security barriers, and controls to ensure they remain in place and operate as intended. Situational awareness is vitally important to HROs.

  1. Commitment to resilience

High reliability organizations develop the capability to detect, contain, and recover from errors. Errors will happen, but they do not paralyze HROs. Resilience has three components:

  • Absorb strain and preserve function despite adversity
  • Maintain the ability to return to service from untoward events
  • Learn and grow from previous episodes
  1. Deference to expertise

This includes deference downward to lower-ranking members of the organization who are closest to the work being done. There is an emphasis on an assembly of knowledge, experience, learning, and intuition. Credibility, a necessary component of expertise, is the mutual recognition of skill levels and legitimacy.

An additional characteristic of an high reliability organization is recognition that teamwork is not only encouraged, but absolutely essential. Working within a silo can be harmful. HROs know that to secure the best outcomes, they identify and engage all employees that touch a process in the work of continuous improvement.

Thus, at Verus, we work with our teams and all employees to help them understand their impact on Verus and on our clients’ outcomes.

Multidisciplinary teams

HROs are known for their use of multidisciplinary teams.

When organizing teams, there must be thought given to which team members would provide the most impact. In selecting the team, potential members’ knowledge, skills, and attitude (“KSA”) should be considered. To work effectively together, each team member must possess specific knowledge, skills, and assessments, such as the skills of monitoring each other’s performance, knowledge of their own and their teammates’ task responsibilities, and a positive disposition toward working in a team.

To gauge the success of ensuring team members possess the requisite KSA’s, HROs must train their teams regarding what they expect. They should provide constant feedback to encourage the desired behaviors and accountability for deviations.

When high reliability organizations adjust their processes, they must communicate changes to the affected individuals no matter how small their roles in the processes. This will allow them to feel comfortable knowing their team members’ task responsibility (trusting all team members involved in a process and comfort in assertiveness is vital). And, HROs must encourage their teams to continue to work together and identify opportunities to prevent errors because team members should feel positive about their team experiences.

At Verus, being an HRO is necessary to achieve our grand goals

Neither Verus nor the law firms we serve are aircraft carriers, air traffic control personnel, nuclear power plants, or healthcare providers. But Verus and the law firms we serve are organizations that impact lives and aim to do no harm along the way just the same.

We recognize our clients desire for just outcomes and our here to help them navigate a system that is not designed to make justice easy.

At Verus, we strive to be an high reliability organization so that we can meet our “big hairy audacious goal” of improving six million lives by 2032. We have a way to go, but are well on our way with the right teams who believe in the mission and goal.

Law firms that want to consistently and effectively achieve the best results for their clients should strive to operate the way HROs operate. If they follow that path, they should have no problems achieving whatever goals they set for themselves—no matter how audacious.

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