Book Review

Managing the Unexpected - Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity
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Managing the Unexpected - Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity

By: Karl E. Weick and Kathleex M. Sutcliffe

Hardcover: 200 pages
Published by: Jossey-Bass
Publication Date: 2001
ISBN: 0787956279


  • Chapter 1 - Managing the Unexpected: What Business can learn from High Reliability Organisations
  • Chapter 2 - The Expected - and the Unexpected
  • Chapter 3 - A Closer Look at Planning and Why Planning Can Make Things Worse
  • Chapter 4 - Assessing your Capabilities for Assured Performance
  • Chapter 5 - Organizational Culture and the Unexpected
  • Chapter 6 - How to Manage Mindfully

Our Review

This book is more of a Management book than a technical book aimed at Engineers, but there is a lot in this book that is relevant to the jobs of Maintenance and Reliability Engineers and Maintenance Managers. This book discusses how "High Reliability Organisations" (HROs) organise for high performance in environments where the consequences of error and disaster is overwhelming - organisations such as Aircraft Carriers, Nuclear Power Generation, Aircraft Operations and so on. Weick & Sutcliffe's proposition is that HROs manage "mindfully" - that is, that they organise in such a way as to be better able to notice the unexpected in the making, and halt its development. If they have difficulty in halting it, then they focus on containing it.

Weick & Sutcliffe discuss, in this book, five hallmarks which they argue are key to the success of HROs. These five hallmarks are:

  • Preoccupation with Failure
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Committment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Briefly, each of these hallmarks are:

Preoccupation with Failure: Even though HROs successfully avoid disasters, they do not gloat over this - rather, they are preoccupied with failures, large and small. They treat every lapse as a symptom that something is wrong with the system - something that could be catastrophic cif several of these small errors coincided at one time.

Reluctance to simplify interpretations: Knowing that the world is complex and unpredictable, HROs take deliberate steps to encourage scepticism towards "conventional wisdom", and create ever more detailed views of the world at large.

Sensitivity to operations: HROs are attentive to the front line - where the real work gets done. Management is less focused on strategic issues, and more focused on situational issues. HROs encourage front line employees to speak up whenever they perceive that things are "not right".

Committment to resilience: HROs develop the capability to "bounce back" from the inevitable errors that are part of an indeterminate world.

Deference to expertise: HROs recognise that rigid hierarchies have their own special vulnerability to error. To prevent this, HROs push decision making down - and around. Decisions are made on the front line, and authority migrates to the person with the most expertise, regardless of rank.

The book discusses these, in detail, including discussion of several real-world examples, drawn from a variety of industries, and a variety of countries. It includes an organizational audit, which allows organizations to determine their own level of preparedness for the unexpected, and, in the final chapter, includes a set of practical guidelines for action.

When read in conjunction with some of the other books on Risk and Reliability covered in previous reviews (such as Reason's "Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents", or Evan and Manion's "Minding the Machines - Preventing Technological Disasters", this expands, yet again, our understanding of what organisations must do in order to become true "High Reliability Organisations".

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