Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 25, 2010

High Performance vs. High Reliability

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on February 25, 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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8 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 25, 2010 @ 1:06 am

THE USA is paying and will pay an enormous price for the militarization of policing throughout the country. What is a genuine failure elsewhere is also contributing. The documentation and protocols that might be developed out of “active shooter” cases where even responders are threatened with bodily harm is not being studied or developed adequately. I guess the death of innocents can only be expected given this situation. Great post, Mark. Another of many by you so thanks. And note for the record the uniformed, and/or gunned and badged crowd threatens to become a majority in the ranks of DHS. No one asking why or whether this is justified or proper. Absolutely no Congressional oversight of the huge population of DHS that can retire in 20 years because of the nature of their “dangerous” and “stressful” professions. Try seeing how they would hold up as medical responders in Haiti even now in week six. That is stressful and even those briefly there to punch their tickets for a week or so will be suffering PTSD.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 25, 2010 @ 10:30 am

Speaking of high performance and high reliability–every organization publically funded should be required to develop an annual report that contains the following critical items:

First, how much of the time of personnel in the organization is devoted responding to other bureacrats within and without the organization?

Second, how much of the time of personnel is spent dealing with the public through the full spectrum of governmental activites from tax collection, to regulation, to grants, to public information etc.

This simple step would help both OMB and Congress and the people of the US writ large a tool to better understand their government. Of course would recommend it for all governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Comment by Art Botterell

February 25, 2010 @ 11:59 am

In particular we need to recognize the inevitable and fundamental trade-off between efficiency and resilience. Whether it’s high-rise buildings or just-in-time inventories or flattened hierarchies, the things we do to achieve efficiencies in the near term tend to create vulnerabilities in the longer term.

It’s the unhappy fate of homeland security and emergency management professionals to have to argue for choices that run counter to conventional metrics of efficiency in the interest of resilience, for which we lack comparable metrics.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 25, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

Agree completely with Art’s comment!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

February 25, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

I agree quite strongly with Mr. Cumming. We’ve created a paramilitary police organization that in my opinion, is over tasked and under skilled to complete the expected and often, poorly assigned tasks. If you couple this with the social impact of managing all the nuances of law enforcement and the secondary missions of homeland security it’s a losing proposition. There is a risk averse culture and an active shooter culture mixed together… this clash of cultures and expectation is a volatile one and the citizenry as well as the law enforcement professional both lose.

I also think there is a growing fear, both in law enforcement and the citizenry of an “us” vs “them” mentality as well. These horizontal and vertical paradoxes are only growing as the lack of understanding and elevated expectations the source article spoke of. Having been in and around law enforcement professionals my entire life and also having “cops” in the family since the turn of the 20th century, I can assure you that the requirements of the position have dramatically changed. I’m also not a blind defender of the thin blue line. The growing requirement for more boots on the street may have potentially placed an individual(s) who would not have been selected 20-30 years ago in the pipeline. This is the quagmire leaders are expected to handle and overcome. Tough choices all around.

Expectation management, touched on in the original post, is a necessity. The hyper critical 24 hour news, post incident hindsight (all knowing) and the “someone’s held accountable” mantra put these people in critically hyper precarious positions. Our anticipated outcomes, ones we’ve grown accustomed to, of near perfect resolutions to all scenarios sets our police up, and to a lesser degree, all emergency responders, to fail. Not a good starting point. Also, not taken into account is the drastic change of society and the law over the last thirty years. Coupled with all perfect solutions and a zero defect mentality and viola; zero margin for error.

In the end, there is no favorable outcome. As this series of scenarios plays out, the outcomes we’re all hoping for seem less and less likely to occur. Police departments were never structured to become paramilitary, National Guard outfits. The all black, tactical gear wearing cop scares the population. But, this is what we’ve asked them to become… indeed, touch choices and unfavorable outcomes lie ahead.

Thank you for posting.

Comment by christopher tingus

February 26, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

Urgent News:

I would like to suggest a discussion which surrounds growing demands by Belgians and other Europeans to remove 200 missle heads, nuclear weapons from European soil including Turkey….

The role is NATO must be reevaluated and a German-led EU, with shiny new war ships sailing in the Mediterannean as well as a fast deployment Army, all contrary to Agreements signed at the end of WWII and before you Mr. President or you Mrs. Clinton even think of giving these weapons to the Europeans, as a US citizen I demand that a full Congressional hearing be convened to discuss the revival of Germany and its prowess to become the power broker in the Middle East. The Germans will rub against the “Thugs of Tehran” and the next WAR will begin, however, I want all our nuclear warheads back in this country as I am tired of the Europeans doing their utmost to diminish America in every way possible -

Mr. President and Mrs. Clinton, no German or European troops should be training in the US and a strong message should be sent to the Germans and Belgians especially letting them know we are well prepared to meet their demands.

A strong America with strong borders is what we here on Main Street USA demand. We are tired of the EU touting its demands, signing trade Agreements with South America and competing in every sense seeking our demise.

This is one American who could see the possibility some day in seeing German missiles launched into the US. The rise of the German manufacturing complex in parallel with the self-seving agenda of the Vatican, well, let’s think out of the box and take our blinders off for the world and allies are changing daily.

Protect our nation at every cost, trust no other for we read and hear the tones and statements from the European officials. We should be quite happy to have the Europeans pick up the tab finally and take care of themselves. Please invite me to the table when discussing this subject for this is one American citizen hearing quite clearly dictates from the German led EU which are very apparent in context!

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
chris.tingus@gmail.com

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 27, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

The Churchillian proverb about the Germans of “at your feet or at your throat” may about to come true for Greece and the Euro zone. Let’s see how this plays out. Is the Euro a high performance or high reliability concept. The next three years may reveal the brilliance of the choice of Britain to not join the Euro zone.

Comment by sxmurxi

June 14, 2010 @ 6:40 am

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