Can you learn something from a 20 year old rookie about operational risk?
If your enterprise wants to achieve high performance and manage risk, consider the aircraft carrier.
An emerging body of science has recognised that certain forms of organisation are exceptionally reliable in delivering safe and effective outcomes in the face of even catastrophic risks.
These organisations were first put under the microscope at the University of California, Berkeley. The results are telling for any CEO, CRO or manager responsible for addressing operational risk. Including legal and regulatory risk.
The quintessential example of a high reliability organisation – or HRO – is the aircraft carrier.
Think about it. The carrier despatches and catches jet aircraft … on a tiny piece of metal … in a heaving sea … often in conditions of war.
Yet the accident rate is incredibly low – planes are rarely lost or damaged.
And do you know the average age of the officers managing deck operations? 20 years old.
Scientists such as Todd LaPorte, Gene Rochline and Karlene Roberts have looked for patterns in these extraordinary results. There’s no one answer but some are especially significant.
For example, complacency is the enemy. The team expects things to go wrong and acts accordingly.
And when they see something wrong they fix it. Everyone owns the problem.
But one success factor stands out amongst the others.
There is no hierarchy during operations. When a supersonic jet is landing on the deck, control moves from the bridge to the deck. In technical terms the locus of control is close to the locus of risk.
So it’s the 20 year old rookie who hooks the aircraft and keeps the deck safe.
What could this mean for managing legal risk?
It’s fair to say legal risk has run along almost opposite lines. Far from involving the whole team, it’s left to the legal expert. Far from empowering everyone to own the problem, the business rookie is encouraged to flick it to the compliance team, then lean on them for a green light.
We often think the law is too complex for the commercial team. Maybe we could learn from the 20 year old rookie.
Compare the Low Reliability and the High Reliability Organisation.
The LRO will focus on efficiency, lack diversity, filter communications and ignore early warning signs.
The HRO will be preoccupied with failure, reluctant to simplify, sensitive to signals and open to input.
It’s a very different modality.
In our mind this emerging body of knowledge supports a distributed and devolved compliance responsibility that shares the burden and strengthens the whole enterprise.
And if you think it’s unrealistic, read the words of Rear Admiral Tom Mercer formerly of USS Carl Vinson:
“So you want to understand an aircraft carrier? Well, just imagine that it’s a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns that same day. Make sure the equipment is so close to the edge of the envelope that it’s fragile.
“Then turn off the radar to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radios, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane closeup. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.”