Most Aviation SMS Suffer from Employee Apathy
Have you been tasked to implement your aviation safety management program (SMS) at your company?
Or perhaps you have inherited a "paper SMS" or one that is dysfunctional?
One of the most common challenges safety managers face is to secure buy-in from all employees to support the SMS both during
- the planning and implementation phases; and
- mature safety assurance phases.
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- Why Should We Implement Aviation SMS?
- Is Your Aviation SMS Implementation a Farce? - with Self-Assessments
- 3 Myths about Aviation SMS Implementation
Top management support may be given to the SMS implementation, at least verbally and on paper, but there is often an obvious disconnect between top management desires and employee behavior. You don't believe me? Look at your safety reporting metrics.
Do you know what your safety reporting rate is this month?
How did your safety reporting rate compare to last month? or better yet:
How did this month's safety reporting rate compare to last year? Better or worse?
These are questions the accountable executive should be asking. Why? Because the accountable executive is responsible for ensuring the aviation SMS is properly implemented.
How does the accountable executive know that the SMS is performing in all areas of the organization? Safety reporting metrics are among the best ways to determine whether there is continuous improvement of the aviation SMS.
"Great," you may think. How do I know if my safety reporting metrics are any good? What if the accountable executive asks the magic question: "What is our safety reporting rate compared to a healthy safety reporting culture?"
What Is Good Employee Participation in the SMS?
I was talking to a safety manager and director of flight ops recently and they thought 4 reports per month was pretty good. Well, they seemed satisfied. I asked them for how many employees and they told me between 100 to 120.
Industry best practices for an aviation safety reporting system should have this company receiving nine or ten safety reports per month.
We have seen this scenario time and again. The accountable executive and top management supports the SMS implementation, but safety managers have little power to increase or encourage sincere employee involvement. Why is this? Most safety managers come from the ranks and understand about employee distrust for management. They may think their safety culture is beyond repair.
Successful SMS implementations hinge on the cooperation of many people across your organization over whom safety managers have little formal authority. How do you measure participation? While safety reporting metrics are a great measure of employee participation, you can use additional metrics to evaluate safety culture, including:
- safety surveys;
- informal interviews.
We will raise questions aimed to increase employee involvement in your aviation SMS when top management wishes don't funnel down to lowest level employee participation.
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles
- What Is Safety Culture in Aviation Risk Management
- 5 Characteristics of Effective Aviation Safety Cultures - with Free Survey
- 5 Indicators of Reactive or Proactive Safety Culture in Your Aviation SMS
Why Employees Don't Participate in SMS Programs
If you’re like most aviation safety managers, you’re facing this "employee apathy" challenge more often these days because of:
- Larger organizational sizes;
- Disconnected communication channels;
- Lack of visible benefit to employees; and
- Outsourcing (increasing complexity of the organization).
For these reasons, most safety managers need to discover novel strategies to influence peers inside and outside their organizations.
Otherwise, safety programs will simply be a "check the box" exercise and the hazard identification and hazard reporting culture will remain non-existent or minimal. This will become the sad reality of most SMS. I hate to say this, but many SMS are going to be wasting considerable resources because their culture won't support the new risk management processes.
SMS Is A Process Not Suitable for All
Smaller aviation service providers are less prone to be "process driven" than the larger airlines. Processes control production. Processes reduce risk by ensuring operations are performed by a prescribed set of rules that has proven effective in the past. These processes are what make the company competitive. Processes provide managers with some assurance that employees will act in prescribed ways to achieve the company mission.
SMS helps aviation service providers improve their processes by continually monitoring their operating environment for hazards and pushing these hazards through their SMS' risk management processes. These are sound, logical processes. They will work, but you have to work them.
When you don't have top management support, the SMS will fail. Most important!
When you don't have top management support, Stop! The accountable executive needs to be aware. If the accountable executive is happy with a "paper SMS," he may have a valid business reason. There is the law of diminishing returns, which means that I won't pump more money into an activity than I can expect to get a return on.
In this case, the accountable executive does not see the "SMS financial benefit" picture clearly, or maybe you, the safety manager don't. It may be that the safety manager overvalues the potential contributions of the SMS. I have to admit, I've seen some idealistic safety mangers whose main life goal is to improve safety without regard for the business case. This attitude is not realistic in every operation. And yes, I've seen my fair share of disillusioned safety managers. The marriage starts of well and the safety manager believes that the accountable and executive see eye to eye and share the same "dream."
As a safety manger, when you don't have the resources to manage the SMS documentation requirements, your SMS will fail. Otherwise, you will have a paper SMS and there really isn't any point in encouraging employee participation. In order to manage everyone's expectations, there should be a "heart-to-heart" with the accountable executive and the director of safety (or safety manager) to ensure expectations are aligned.
Have you read...
- How to Earn Top Management Support for Aviation SMS
- How Top Management Kills Aviation Safety Culture - with Examples
- Why Aviation Safety Managers Fail without Dept Head Support in SMS
If the accountable executive wants only to check the box, the safety manager may have to suspend his grand dream of making the world a better place by working his tail off to reduce risk as low as practical. There are financial and resource limitations in the "real world." We may all believe SMS is the "right thing to do," but if the "right thing" doesn't make a profit, or at least break even, this will be a tough sell to the board of directors or shareholders.
What's it like when the accountable executive and safety managers are on the same page? You will either have a need to promote the SMS or not.
I'm guessing you are interested in increasing employee engagement, otherwise you wouldn't still be here reading.
Let's look at three things you can do to encourage employees and suppliers to participate in your aviation safety program.
1. Understanding Their Resistance to Change
Safety managers are "change managers." Everybody has a different ability to tolerate change. You will see that the older generation are usually the most resistant to change. After all, the older generation has more experience. They have seen what works and what doesn't. They also have the attitude that "if it's not broke, don't fix it." The old-school 30-year veteran is the toughest sell on benefits of the aviation SMS.
Let's face it, the older workers have seen many change initiatives and may believe:
- The "SMS fad" will soon pass;
- Nobody will enforce this SMS fad;
- There is no immediate benefit to them; or
- Another manager will soon come along and we'll focus on another fad.
How will you deal with these attitudes?
Aviation SMS commonly take three to five years to fully implement. When the safety manager switches positions every year or two, SMS does, in fact, become a fad and difficult to maintain a consistent implementation focus.
How will you show benefit to these employees?
- Participation awards?
- Hinge performance reviews on safety program participation?
- Other safety promotion activities?
An aviation SMS is, in fact, a marathon. A marathon of change. A marathon of continuous improvement. It doesn't have to happen all at once.
Small changes in attitudes.
Small changes in processes.
Small changes in improvement.
SMS is a process.
You have to work the process or you will not realize value from your "inputs." Identify resistance. Determine the root cause. Advise the accountable executive. Develop a strategy of what the next steps are.
Sadly, if you are surrounded by the "good-ole-boy" club where the most resistant managers are golfing buddies with the accountable executive, you will have to be tactful.
Have you read...
- 3 Tips to Discover Resistance to Aviation SMS - with Checklists
- How to Reduce Resistance to Aviation SMS with Difficult Employees
- 5 Warning Signs and Symptoms of Aviation SMS Failures
2. Developing Your Safety Manager Powers
There are two types of power in an organization:
- Positional authority; and
- Personal influence.
For safety managers, the use of positional authority is a luxury that you seldom possess; therefore, you will exert more influence by developing your personal authority.
You can enhance your personal authority by focusing on:
- Relationships; and
Honing Safety Manager Relationship Skills
Aviation professionals tend to accept change and new ideas from people they like and respect. One suggestion is to review "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
I particularly like the section: "Six Ways to Make People Like You"
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
- Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
Safety Management Expertise Is Required to Influence Others
Before your peers buy-into the aviation SMS' objectives, they need to believe that you are credible and know what you are doing.
Therefore, become not just the "safety manager," but an "aviation safety professional."
- Do your homework;
- Learn the requirements for an SMS;
- Read the ICAO SMS guidance material;
- Get SMS training;
- Learn the requirements of an aviation SMS (yes, I repeated this on purpose);
- Network with other SMS experts (Aviation Safety Management Systems LinkedIn Group).
Related Aviation Safety Manager Articles
- How Safety Managers Increase Their Power in Aviation SMS
- What Is an Aviation Safety Manager in SMS?
- What Makes a Good Aviation Safety Manager?
3. Stress Benefits over SMS Requirements
Safety managers are not only "change managers," but they must also be salesmen. Inexperienced safety managers will always be starting a conversation like:
We must "fill-in-the-blank" because of requirement "xxx".
Instead of always preaching the "SMS requirements," focus on selling the benefits of the SMS.
An effective approach when discussing the SMS is to shift ownership of the SMS to the accountable executive. The safety manager implements and manages the SMS for the accountable executive. Whenever practical, send safety messages as if they were coming from the accountable executive.
When resistance is coming from upper level managers, discover whether the aviation SMS has value to share with the operational department heads to facilitate their decision making. An SMS database collects considerable hazard and risk data during the risk management processes. This information is useful to department heads to discover trends or to alert management of developing trends that could affect their area of operations.
You should expect your SMS database to:
- collect and store many years worth of SMS safety report and audit data;
- categorize the data for further risk analysis;
- document and track risk management activities;
- generate trending analytical charts;
- alert management of developing trends by email and data reports; and
- monitor SMS performance.
What manager would not like to have access to hazard and risk management trending data? What manager would not want to track the performance of risk controls that he was personally responsible for implementing?
The point is to discover what will add value to management and they will "value" the SMS. When you provide value to management, they become sincere promoters of the SMS and true believers in using the design, implement and monitoring processes of SMS.
Related Aviation SMS Performance Monitoring Articles
- How to Monitor Aviation SMS Performance - Safety Chart
- How to Monitor Aviation SMS' Safety Culture Performance
- 10 Great Reports to Monitor Safety Performance in SMS - with Examples
Final Thoughts on Encouraging Participation in SMS
Being a safety manager is not an easy job. Management is not always coming up to you and saying, "Thank you for keeping us safe today." But whenever safety-related events surface, all eyes immediately focus on you.
Your company should never view your SMS implementation as a sprint. SMS implementations are marathons. Slow and steady as she goes. Just make sure the ship doesn't stall.
This is the politically correct approach. But let's also be practical. Some SMS implementations are a sprint. The accountable executive is trying to get a contract or pass an IOSA or ISAGO audit and they need an SMS yesterday. These paper SMS are rather common and I see them die on the vine. Once the objective is achieve, it is back to business as usual.
Has this happened at your company? I'm willing to venture that 15% of SMS implementations are of this type. It is not pretty, but it is business. That 15% guesstimate may be too conservative a guess in some regions.
One reason employees don't participate in SMS programs is because that they feel there is no pay value for their behavior.
What is in it for them? Do they get more money? A promotion? What is in it for the employee?
When employees know that career advancement is dependent on safety participation, then there is something "in it for the employee." However, when employees know that their behavior is not monitored, you cannot expect participation. It doesn't work that way in the real world. Unless you can track my performance, and prove it, I'll continue to do what I always do to the SMS: "I'll ignore it."
A few aviation service providers have no "sustainable process" for monitoring employee safety contributions, such as:
- number of safety reports submitted within past year;
- number of times safety tasks have been overdue;
- attendance at safety meetings;
- completed all required training;
- reviewed safety policy;
- reviewed company goals and objectives, etc.
Using an SMS database, aviation service provides can easily monitor employee safety performance using the Employee Safety Performance Monitor module in SMS Pro.
SMS Pro Demo Videos
If your safety culture or SMS performance is substandard due to lack of an SMS database, there are low-cost commercially available alternatives. Here are some short demo videos of such an SMS database:
Live SMS Pro Demo
Have questions? Do we seem like a good fit after watching the demo videos? Do you want to see the system live? Sign up for a live demo.
Published August 2015. Last updated January 2019.