Paperwork Is More than Tedious
Let’s be real – documentation is really just a fancy word for paperwork (digital or hardcopy). It can be extremely tedious. I’ve never met anyone who looks forward to documentation. That doesn’t change the fact that at every activity of an aviation SMS program – set up, implementation, reported issues, and continuous improvement – documentation does greatly impact the efficiency of the program.
SMS documentation is the script of an SMS program.
What Is Documentation in an Aviation SMS Program?
We can widely regard SMS documentation as:
- Job Duties and Responsibilities
- Implementation Plan
- Managing Reported Issues
It covers a lot of areas, and that means a ton of paperwork. But when aviation safety managers do their due diligence and make a serious effort to create thorough documentation, they – and their organization – will thank them for it. Valuable documentation has far-ranging implications in a safety program, from proactivity to damage control, and preparation to review.
Here are 5 areas where effective documentation will save a safety manager a heartache and/or a headache.
1 – When Accidents Happen
Accidents will always happen. Sometimes they will happen very publicly. Public attention from accidents can bring a storm of negative attention on an organization. The wrath of the public generally boils down to one consideration.
Fault. Heads will always roll.
Public backlash can be severe if it deems that the accident was preventable – i.e. the organization's fault – vs a mistake that the organization could not have prevented – i.e. silly human error.
When accidents do happen, documentation will be one of the primary barriers between the organization and everyone else: the public, FAA, etc. The ability to show hard evidence that the organization instituted policies/procedures/training that was related to the cause(s) of the accident can make all the difference between wrath and sympathy, between an organization scrambling to divert the finger pointed at them and being able to calmly point out that the accident was totally beyond their control.
And that level documentation falls on the safety manager’s shoulders.
2 – With New Safety Managers
I spoke about this in another post – but imagine the following scenario:
A safety manager is 3 years into implementing a new SMS program, and for whatever reason, he/she has to leave the organization. A new safety manager steps in. With quality documentation, the new safety manager can quickly get up to speed on:
- How far along the implementation is towards its goals and objectives
- What has/hasn’t been effective/accomplished
- The efficiency of the flow of safety information
- Duties and responsibility breakdown – in actual practice – in the organization
If the documentation has been sparse or cursory, a new safety manager will have an extremely difficult time continuing where the SMS program left off. It can be a significant blow to the SMS implementation. In extreme cases, such as sparse and disorganized documentation, the new safety manager is left merely trying to pick up the pieces.
Poor documentation is on par with a poor track record for a safety manager. What nice things will an organization have to say about a safety officer who leaves the SMS program in disarray when he/she leaves?
3 – During Employee Turnover
Similar to the above point, but when it comes to employee turnover good documentation tends to be very proactive. Starting a new job is stressful. The environment, processes, and relationships are unfamiliar. I would be willing to bet that new employees pose a much greater risk than seasoned employees.
Getting new employees up to speed and familiar plays an important role in mitigating that risk.
Once again, enter documentation. Being able to show new employees very clearly-
- What their responsibilities are
- Whom they report to for issues
- What happens to safety information when they report it
- What management’s safety concerns are
- General aviation safety policy and detailed procedures
-gives them a steady leg to stand on from the beginning of their tenure. This is especially true if the documentation has been regularly maintained to reflect real life practices.
4 – When Preparing for Audits
Safety audits can be a stressful time for an organization, and especially a safety manager. They also don’t have to be a serious headache.
Detailed and organized documentation for the flow and management of issues, as well as the organization and implementation methods for the SMS, is often the difference between successful and poor audit preparation. In difficult implementation’s and environments that have a poor reporting culture, quality documentation are demonstrative of the energy and methods that a safety manager is employing in an SMS program.
It also makes the auditor's job way easier too when he/she is reviewing your organization’s practices. Organizations with good documentation will consistently perform better in audits and receive more specific feedback on how they can improve.
5 – During Implementation
This is the most obvious one on this list. Efficient aviation SMS implementation hinges heavily on preparation. Without-
- Well planned policies
- Thoughtful procedures
- Imaginative accountability
-an SMS program is prone to hit setbacks and fall behind. Consistently hitting SMS goals depends on detailing realistic objectives in a proper time frame, and finding inventive methods of reaching those goals.
I tend to find that implementation is where documentation really shines and sets itself up as a make it or break it an aspect of building an SMS program.
Documentation Creates a Process to Rely On
One reason I’m a major fan of documentation is that it’s very controlled. Human factors – including your own and those of management – are much more of a wild-card. Life happens, things come up, people get distracted and make mistakes. If you rely on people too much, accidents will happen.
But documentation is finite. History demonstrates to rely on the system – the procedures and processes – rather than the people. The procedure is a framework you can rely on, and count on the fact that if you invest time and energy into doing it well, you will save time, energy, frustration, and will come out well prepared.
When was the last time you reviewed your aviation safety policy? Here is a good resource.
Document image via Wikimedia