Leeds School of Social Sciences

Improving Workplace Safety Through Mindful Organising: What We Can Learn From High Reliability Organisations

Dr Matteo Curcuruto, from PASH research unit, is carrying out a research project on “Mindful Organizing and Accident Prevention” in collaboration with the University of Valencia. It aims to uncover communication and teamwork practices making certain high-risk organisations thrive.

Smoke Funnel

Since 2019, Dr Curcuruto has worked with Professor Francisco Gracia and Dr Michelle Renecle, who spent a semester in Leeds Beckett, to develop a new multidimensional survey assessment tool evaluating the potential of safety critical industries to operate in accordance with the principles of “Mindful Organizing” of high reliability organisations. It has also seen contributions from Dr Jim Morgan, from Leeds School of Sciences and Professor Ines Tomas, from the University of Valencia Research team.  The project has received funding from the European Union, accordingly with the ERASMUS+ program, and by the Centre of Psychological Research (PsyCen).

The concept of high reliability organisations and the HRO paradigm was initially created by a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (Rochlin et al., 1987). The authors wanted to understand why some organisations had exceptionally high safety standards and never seemed to fail. Subsequently, the concept of mindful organising emerged from Weick and Roberts (1993) and Weick et al.’s (1999) research into how high reliability organisations managed to achieve almost error-free performance under such trying conditions.

Important case studies in HRO research include both studies of disasters and the analysis of specific industries like the air traffic control system, naval aircraft carriers and nuclear power operations, three examples of HROs that manage to ensure safety despite continuously being exposed to high conditions of risk. From this, the authors observed that HROs had a different social and relational infrastructure to other kinds of organisations, which is also known “heedful interrelating”. This “heedful interrelating” meant that teams were highly attentive in their actions and interactions with one another. Further research into these highly attentive actions and interactions showed that it allowed teams to have an expanded understanding of the system in which they operated (Weick et al., 1999). This expanded understanding of the system was also linked to a wider range of possible responses to novel or unexpected situations (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). This meant teams were able to manage the unexpected and contain errors far more effectively than teams operating in other high-risk environments (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). They called this team phenomenon “mindful organising”.

Medical Operating Theatre

Although the original research and early application of the concept of mindful organising into practice occurred in high-risk industries, research today covers a wide variety of applications and settings. For instance, health care has been one of the largest practitioner area for several years (Tolk et al., 2013).

Today, there a substantial agreement that mindful organising consists of five independent processes reflecting five intrinsic characteristics of high reliability organisations:

a) Preoccupation with failure- HROs treat anomalies as symptoms of a problem with the system. The latent organisational weaknesses that contribute to small errors can also contribute to larger problems, so errors are reported promptly so problems can be found and fixed.

b) Reluctance to simplify interpretations-HROs are cognizant that the operating environment is very complex, so they look across system boundaries to determine the path of problems, and value a diversity of experience and opinions.

c) Sensitivity to operations- HROs are continuously sensitive to unexpected changed conditions. They monitor the systems’ safety and security barriers and controls to ensure they remain in place and operate as intended.

d) Commitment to resilience- HROs develop the capability to detect, contain and recover from errors. Errors can still happen, but HROs are not paralyzed by them. Instead, HROs develop systematic reviewing and learning procedures that stimulate the improvement of the system.

e) Deference to expertise- HROs follow typical communication hierarchy during routine operations but defer to the person with the expertise to solve the problem during upset conditions. During a crisis, decisions are made at the front line, and authority migrates to the person who can solve the problem, regardless of their hierarchical rank.

Safety Workers Carrying Out Checks

As mentioned by Dr Curcuruto “Mindful Organising” is a shared organisational capability operating at the teamwork level. In spite of an impressing body of research studies conducted for more than 20 years under the framework of HROs paradigm, we are currently missing a set of validated psychometric measures assessing separately all five components of mindful organizing. Our colleagues at University of Valencia have worked for many years in the context of the Spanish nuclear industry, and they are very aware of the crucial importance of each of the five mindful organizing processes supporting high reliability in safety critical industries.

Train on tracks

This collaborative project aims to provide the development and the validation of a multidimensional assessment tool of the five principles of Mindful Organizing in the form of a diagnostic survey questionnaire. The project is receiving support by UK industrial partners from the railway and aviation sectors. Three research stages have been already completed: a) survey prototype development involving a pool of six academic experts b) "content validity" analysis based on interviews with twelve industrial managers c) analysis of "face validity" with a sample of 90 participants. The next research stage involves the validation of the survey with factor analysis techniques. This part of the study will be developed in collaboration with NATS, the public agency deputed to the flight traffic control in the UK. 

Plane on the Runway

Dr Matteo Curcuruto

Senior Research Fellow / Leeds School Of Social Sciences

Dr Matteo Curcuruto, is a Senior Research Fellow of the Psychology Group at the School of Social Sciences. He is also Co-lead of the PASH Research Unit (Psychology Applied on Health and Safety).

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