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High-Performance vs. High-Reliability

February 21, 2010

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, controversy erupted following the recent police shooting of an unarmed African-American man. This situation echoes many of the themes surrounding the so-called intelligence failures associated with the attempted Christmas Day attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253. Despite their differences, both situations present us with evidence of the ever-present tensions between the competing demands for high-performance and the need for high-reliability in homeland security operations.

High-performing organizations focus on speed and success in aggregate. High-reliability organizations stress stability and security. High-reliability organizations assess the success of each engagement, and often each step of an engagement. High-performing organizations seek efficiencies. High-reliability organizations emphasize effectiveness. High-performance often involves risk taking, while high-reliability often implies (if not incites) risk aversion.

As I noted last week, those who seek to improve organizational performance often equate transparency with accountability. While the former may promote the latter, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving trust, especially in the absence of cooperation among diverse stakeholders with conflicting goals and competing interests.

Organizational reliability emphasizes cooperation as a means of building a team’s capacity to detect and correct errors before they produce unwanted and undesirable consequences. This often reveals itself as trust or confidence in the competence of others and their capacity to deliver the goods consistently. Trust promotes cooperation, but a history of successful cooperation often serves as a prerequisite for building trust among people, especially among groups composed of people with different values or cultural perspectives. In many, if not most instances, this requires the suspension of judgment or accountability so people can find the hidden meaning in situations, which in turn serves to unify participants in their commitment to a common purpose outside of but not necessarily inconsistent with group norms.

If a high-reliability organization can be described as one that operates in a complex, high-stakes environment yet commits fewer than the expected number of errors, then a high-performing organization could be said to achieve its stated purpose or mission despite its challenges and shortcomings because of its capacity to learn from its own and others’ mistakes.

Now, back to Portland. On the evening of January 29, a woman called police to an address in northeast Portland where a man expressing suicidal intentions was located with a woman and two children inside an apartment. The man’s brother had died earlier in the day of complications from a cardiac ailment leaving the man overcome with grief and speaking openly of a desire for police to take his life.

When police arrived, they established a cordon, made contact with the man and soon convinced him to release the children. As negotiations continued, police assembled and deployed a tactical team outside. When negotiators convinced the man to come outside and surrender, he walked out with his hands behind his head. Officers ordered him to raise his hands so they could see them, which he failed to do. In an effort to secure his compliance after repeated warnings, an officer approached him from behind and fired several non-lethal beanbag rounds at the man’s back with a shotgun. Witness accounts (recorded in grand jury testimony subsequently released by the court) portray a mixed assessment of what happened next, but agree that the man reached for his back and was subsequently shot by a police marksman. A single shot from an AR-15 assault rifle struck the man in the back killing him.

Police later established that the man was unarmed. A search of the apartment turned up a handgun inside a closet, not in a sock inside the man’s coat pocket as officers had previously suspected based on reports from initial informants.

This incident occurred against a backdrop of mistrust in police use of force and lingering suspicions that Portland police officers use force disproportionately against people of color. As such, community leaders and police union officials responded to the situation immediately and presented very different versions of the events.

Police claimed the shooting was justified by the risk the man would have posed if he had been armed and the uncertainty involved in assessing his state of mind and whether he was armed. Ministers from the African-American community expressed concern that the outcome resulted from the family’s request for assistance dealing with a grieving and distraught relative.  They also noted that the man had cooperated up until he was confronted outside the apartment by police whose tactics and demeanor departed dramatically from those that had enticed him to emerge from the apartment. This, they suggested, would lead a reasonable person to conclude police had overreacted and that their actions were informed by unacknowledged biases rather than the risks involved.

In response to the incident, city leaders initiated an internal investigation, called upon the District Attorney to petition for release of the grand jury proceedings and invited an inquiry by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. After hearing all the evidence, the Grand Jury declined to indict the officers involved in the shooting, and sent a highly critical letter to the police chief and commissioner citing poor communication and lack of coordination among police on the scene as key factors leading to the shooting. They also questioned the training and procedures for dealing with such events. The results of the internal and DOJ investigations are months away, and likewise so is any accountability for the incident and its precursor conditions.

Without recounting the Christmas Day attack and its fallout in full, it has been acknowledged at the highest levels that systemic rather than individual failures allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to board the flight and come as close as he did to succeeding with his plot to bring down an airliner full of innocent travelers. President Obama has taken political if not personal responsibility for the failure of intelligence agencies to coordinate their efforts and reach timely and complete conclusions about the threat Mr. Abdulmutallab posed. This has in turn resulted in a demand for future accountability for improvements both in intelligence and airport security processes and practices that will presumably help avoid future failures by encouraging cooperation as a means of restoring trust absent any greater transparency.

What lesson should we take from these two very different incidents and their consequences? Well, for starters, we should recognize that high-performance and high-reliability organizations are ideal types. That is, they do not typically exist in a real world that demands trade-offs between efficiency, effectiveness, economy, and equity. Insofar as these two types represent ideals, they also reflect competing conceptions of what ends organizations should serve and the means of achieving them.

A better question for us might be, “How do we strike a harmonious balance between reliability and performance?” This takes us back to the framework I proposed in last week’s post.

Every situation that calls for us to make a high-stakes decision involves trade-offs, not clear-cut solutions. The decisions we make (and don’t make) and the actions we and others take in response to those decisions too often presume an ideal answer exists. Even when that may be true, it often proves hopelessly unrealistic if not patently unreasonable to assume we can affect an ideal implementation of that solution. And even if we should be lucky enough to hit such a home run, we can never expect such an approach to please everyone.

In the end, managing expectations, not just meeting them, is among the most important responsibilities leaders have when it comes to promoting homeland security. That remains true whether we emphasize transparency or accountability and whether we can rely on trust or must build it through cooperation. Knowing where we are on these continua will help us steer a safe course, even when we know neither our destination nor the best course to get there.

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