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Operational Failures and Problem Solving: An Empirical Study of Incident Reporting


  • Julia Adler-Milstein

    () (Harvard Business School)

  • Sara J. Singer

    () (Harvard School of Public Health)

  • Michael W. Toffel

    () (Harvard Business School, Technology and Operations Management Unit)


Operational failures occur in all industries with consequences that range from minor inconveniences to major catastrophes. Many organizations have implemented incident reporting systems to highlight actual and potential operational failures in order to encourage problem solving and prevent subsequent failures. Our study is among the first to develop and empirically test theory regarding which reported operational failures are likely to spur problem solving. We hypothesize that problem solving activities are especially likely to follow reported operational failures that provoke financial and legal liability risks. We also hypothesize that management commitment to problem solving, enacted through managers' communication and engagement practices, can encourage frontline workers to conduct problem solving. We test our hypotheses in the health care context, in which the use of incident reporting systems to highlight operational failures is widespread. Using data on nearly 7,500 reported incidents from a single hospital, we find support for our hypotheses. Our findings suggest that frontline workers' participation in problem solving is motivated by some inherent characteristics of the problems as well as by particular management practices.

Suggested Citation

  • Julia Adler-Milstein & Sara J. Singer & Michael W. Toffel, 2009. "Operational Failures and Problem Solving: An Empirical Study of Incident Reporting," Harvard Business School Working Papers 10-017, Harvard Business School.
  • Handle: RePEc:hbs:wpaper:10-017

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