High Reliability Series: On Collective Mindfulness

Reprinted with permission of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Source: Hines S, Luna, K, Lofthus J, et al. Becoming a High Reliability Organization: Operational Advice for Hospital Leaders. AHRQ Publication No. 08-0022. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. April 2008. (http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/hroadvice/).”

Throughout our series on High Reliability Organizations (HROs), we have been discussing the five defining principles Weick & Sutcliffe have described HROs to possess: 1) Sensitivity to Operations; 2) Preoccupation with Failure; 3) Deference to Expertise; 4) Resilience; and 5) Reluctance to Simplify. The five principles are interrelated and do not exist unless they are built upon an organizational “collective mindfulness,” which describes the way in which the scarce commodity of individual attention is applied to the health of the overall organization. They use Langer’s model of a mindful state at the individual level and then apply it to the group based on its application and interplay within the five principles above. According to Langer:

“…a mindful state is expressed at the individual level in at least three ways: active differentiation and refinement of existing categories and distinctions; creation of new discontinuous categories out of the continuous streams of events that flow through activities; and a more nuanced appreciation of context and of alternative ways to deal with it…”

But mindfulness for the sake of mindfulness will not transform an organization into a HRO. Awareness and vigilance without action will not keep patients safe in our hospitals. It is the ability of all within an organization to consistently focus awareness to that which has the potential to cause harm without losing the forest through the trees as they say, and then effectively act upon the data taken in that will effectively transform an organization. As Weick, et al share:

“…To grasp the role of collective mindfulness in HROs, it is important to recognize that awareness is more than simply an issue of “the way in which scarce attention is allocated” (March, 1994, p. 10). Mindfulness is as much about the quality of attention as it is about the conservation of attention. It is as much about what people do with what they notice as it is about the activity of noticing itself…”

Mindfulness empowers action that prevents potential harm, and can be appreciated with the high reliability mindset of crews on aircraft carriers. Stephen Muething, MD, Vice President of Safety at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital illustrated one such example of action in his post, Lessons From An Aircraft Carrier:

“A piece a paper floated up onto the deck. A young trainee raised his hand immediately, dozens of other hands went up on deck when they saw his, and the landing was aborted. During the commanding officer’s daily address that evening he called out the sailor by name and thanked him.

The chart at the top of this post is adapted from Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 1999 and was found in the AHRQ publication “Becoming a High Reliability Organization: Operational Advice for Hospital Leaders.” The visual further reinforces that without a constant state of mindfulness, an organization will not achieve high reliability, or if they do so, the accomplishment will be fleeting. How can organizations develop and institute a state of collective mindfulness within their organization? With practice, intention and a culture steeped in transparency and an openness to learning. More on mindfulness to follow. Please share your thoughts–


Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM, Obstfeld D. Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness. Research in Organizational Behavior. 1999;21:81-123.

Weick KE & Sutcliffe KM. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 Comments on “High Reliability Series: On Collective Mindfulness”

  1. Heimkino says:

    Why viewers still use to read news papers when in this technological
    globe everything is presented on net?

  2. Lawrence says:

    Da würde ich tatsächlich vermuten, dass dieser Text
    “High Reliability Series: On Collective Mindfulness | Educate the Young” glatt von mir verfasst wurde so gut wie der hier
    steht. Alle Daumen nach oben und viel Glück noch weiter so !

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