High Reliability Management

Emma De Vita reviews Emery Roe and Paul Schulman's guide to operating on the edge

You might think there was not much a third sector manager could learn from California's electric power grid operator, but you'd be wrong. Two Americans called Emery Roe and Paul Schulman spent six years at the power supplier interviewing engineers and managers to find out how they provided a critical service continuously and safely, even through periods of crisis.

Like the grid operator team, charities operate in risky environments where resources aren't guaranteed and unforeseen crises can leave you in dire straits. The subtitle to High Reliability Management is "operating on the edge".

Reliability, say the authors, is allied to both anticipation and resilience. It is about "the ability of organisations to plan for shocks as well as to absorb and rebound from them in order to provide services safely and continuously".

A highly reliable organisation is one that must have a low tolerance for error - after all, which air traffic controller or nuclear power station engineer wants to make a mistake?

Charities are what the authors call "error-tolerant organisations". The fact that they are low on resources, don't have many measurable targets and can operate on a trial-and-error basis means that making mistakes is normal. And believe it or not, there are two characteristics that charity managers and nuclear power station managers share: they encourage the reporting of mistakes, and they are flexible in their outlook.

 - Emma De Vita is editor of the books pages on Management Today.

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