What Are We Really Talking About?
In aviation safety management systems (SMS), the best indicator of a highly performant safety culture isn’t one that has reduced operational risk close to zero, but one that readily adapts to and absorbs safety issues and disturbances as they arise.
In so many words, high-performing aviation SMS are simply able to adjust to instability rather than resist or deflect them. In other words: goes with the flow without any setback.
Of course words like “stability,” “culture,” “adaptability,” “reliable,” are great for philosophical discussions but rather poor for trying to assess SMS performance and how they relate to real life.
When it comes to your aviation organization, here are 5 safety indicators of high performing aviation SMS.
1 – Doesn’t Count past Success As Future Guarantee
When I first started driving, my dad told me to “pretend that you are driving an invisible car and that no one actually sees you.” It was kind of silly but has turned out to be great advice.
The same holds true in an aviation organization. Research has shown that aviation organizations whose front-line employees treat their operational environment as actively hostile are significantly less likely to misinterpret or underestimate risks. It makes total sense.
Basically, an organization that looks at each day as a new situation, i.e. look at each situation with fresh eyes, is safer. Granted, this mindset in practice means actively putting safety ahead of production – which is entirely different conversation altogether.
2 – Documentation Reflects Actual Practice
The idea here is short and sweet.
Documentation reflecting actual operating practices is not only good for Big Brother (i.e. FAA, Transport Canada, EASA, etc.). Good documentation will also help you pass audits. But more importantly, complete, well-documented SMS demonstrates an indication of a deeper resiliency in your aviation SMS.
Related Aviation SMS Documentation Articles
- 5 Times Documentation Saves Safety Managers in Aviation SMS
- How to Document Your System Processes in Aviation SMS
- Important Ways to Formally Document Aviation Safety Programs
Adequate documentation signals that the organization’s leadership is attuned to the challenges and risks that the operation will face in real operations.
Secondly, when documentation reflects real operations, it’s also an indication that safety management is committed to an ongoing-
-of how their safety system functions.
Which car is the most reliable? The one that is inspected regularly. Same idea here.
3 – Employees Not Afraid to Speak Up
If and when hazards manifest themselves into undesirable states, it will do so in presence of the general workforce, the line employees. These employees are on the front-line and are exposed to hazards, whether these employees are pilots, mechanics, cabin crew, etc. It’s therefore critical that employees are given the credibility and authority to make rational decisions if the situation calls for something other than the “norm.”
In NASA’s study of aviation accidents, they found that one of the consistent reasons that risks drifted into hazards, unsafe situations, and ultimately failures were lack of communication. Namely, lack of speaking up.
Employees' ability to speak up will largely hinge on three things:
- No fear of being reprimanded
- A company policy of safety before production
- Enough resources (i.e. information) to be confident about speaking up
Giving employees the liberty to freely say “no” will have a significant impact on SMS performance because, like a couple other points in this article, it focuses the dependability on the entire organization as opposed to just a handful of individuals. Healthy safety cultures maintain open lines of communication between management and line employees.
4 - Hierarchies Are Not Strict
Hierarchies in aviation organizations – indeed any organization – certainly have their place, time, and benefits. For example, the three primary benefits are those hierarchies that:
- Establish organizational structure
- Cultivate responsibility awareness
- Clarify duty distribution
That being said, dogmatic adherence to following the org chart is also a slippery slope into fostering a culture not aligned to healthy, performing safety cultures.
Related Aviation SMS Org Chart Articles
- How to Create an Org Chart for Aviation Safety Programs
- 4 Important Reasons to Use Org Charts in Aviation SMS
Organizations that commonly have under-performing safety cultures possess certain traits, specifically:
- Reliance on a few individuals as opposed to the system
- Inability to quickly adapt
Rigidly top-down systems may have worked in past, or today in smaller organizations – but the trend across the board is that aviation SMS is moving increasingly towards complexity. Technological changes, larger organizations, the weight of ever-increasing compliance obligations, etc. are all reasons why organizations’ structure need to adapt.
When hierarchies are not strict, employees have the latitude to be responsible and have some authority to say no. Organizations' SMS as a whole will become much more performant because they are relying on the efforts of the whole organization as opposed to the efforts of a few individuals.
Moreover, management’s willingness to rely on employees as a whole cuts back on management's workload. Consequently, offering employees more freedom to participate in the SMS activities provides the SMS with more opportunities for identifying new hazards and helps dissolve the distrustful barrier between management and the general workforce.
5 – Free Flowing Information throughout Organization
Yes, “free-flowing information” is another way of saying transparency. But its importance is never to be underestimated.
It is also for sake of transparency that organizations should be rigidly hierarchical or top down, as such a practice adds numerous stop gaps in the flow of information.
In many ways, free-flowing information is also another way of:
- encouraging aviation organizations to “decentralize” information.
Decentralizing information and distributing it with fairly liberal practices can be instrumental in providing awareness to all employees by:
- Making sure they are aware of current safety concerns;
- Preparing them to deal with impacts (reverberations) from previous events;
- Keeping them updated which allows them to anticipate future events; and
- Providing them a complete understanding of the SMS as it currently exists, including substandard safety performance.
Assessing how much information employees have access to is a common challenge with most aviation service providers. It is largely a product of communication.
- How much information can be shared?
- Can employees freely access all reported safety issues?
- How often are important safety issues, hazards, and risks being addressed in safety meetings, with safety promotional tools, etc?
- How readily does management release sensitive information?
And to harp back on a previous point, having the goal of free-flowing information also encourages relationship complexity (i.e. breaking down rigid top-down barriers) in an organization.
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles
- What Is Safety Culture in Aviation Risk Management
- How to Build Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
- How to Change Toxic Safety Cultures in Aviation SMS
Final Thought: Keeping the Discussion Alive
One of the dangers I foresee in modern organizations is twofold:
- We live in the safest time to fly in the history of aviation
- In the past few years, technology and complexity in aviation SMS is growing exponentially
It’s easy to relax our vigilance in times of low accident rates.
It will also become easier to let the discussion on safety slide a bit as we become even more safer.
Rather than focusing on the data and numbers – which by all means may indicate that SMS performance is adequate and that the system as a whole is indeed incredibly safe – better would be to focus on exploring how your organization functions, and how its complexity grows or changes.
Safety culture drives SMS performance. All five of these indicators of high performing aviation SMS are tied to safety culture. When management is monitoring the performance of the SMS and establishing KPIs, consider for a moment how many of your KPIs are related to safety culture.
What is your safety culture like? Here is a useful safety culture resources that many have found useful.
Published March 2016. Last updated August 2019.