Intro Failing To Agree
Many of the most important misconceptions about aviation safety management systems (SMS) revolve around the relationships and resistance that hurts programs.
Generally, the misconceptions about aviation SMS programs revolve around differences in attitudes about safety risk management. In such a case, differences in attitudes between two employees generally leave each person feeling that:
- The other person doesn’t value the SMS program;
- The other person doesn’t understand the goals of SMS; or
- That their risk management strategy is the right one.
But what aviation SMS managers, employees, and executive management need to understand is that there is no one correct approach towards aviation SMS and aviation risk management. Different attitudes about risk management stress the importance of different
- safety practices,
- attitudes, and
- aspects of safety culture.
Far too often safety programs struggle to gain momentum not because of poor management, poor safety practices, or poor value systems, but simply because employees' risk management attitudes don’t agree.
In the same way that the best sports teams don’t always have the best players but work together the best, developing an adaptable aviation SMS program with quality risk management techniques hinges upon employees understanding each others risk management attitudes and working together.
Pragmatist: The Hazard Mitigator
In terms of risk management strategies, the Pragmatist doesn’t value the “predictability” of future events. This risk management attitude believes that best way to understand risks, identify hazards, and mitigate incidents is by focusing the SMS program on:
- Effective reactive to change techniques; and
- An adaptable safety culture.
Their moto would probably be in line with “past successes and lessons aren’t future guarantees.” As aviation safety managers they tend to spend less time on policies and procedures, and instead stress safety training that equips employees to efficiently deal with risk, hazards, and safety issues as they occur.
As employees, they may see too many policies and procedures as superfluous rules, and Conservator manager types may find them to be “resistant.” Employees who are Pragmatists value practical tools and techniques to actively practice aviation risk management.
Conservator: The Risk Eradicator
The opposite of the Pragmatist, the Conservator aviation risk management attitude values predictive risk management. The Conservator focuses their risk management strategies around on:
- Aviation safety data analysis;
- Safety trending charts; and
- Policies and procedures that reflect their analysis.
This risk management attitude tends to believe that many risks and hazards can be, for all intents and purposes, eliminated through careful planning. As managers, they have sophisticated hazards analysis workflows, very good working knowledge of the conditions of past and present safety issues, and they take safety investigations very seriously.
As workers, the Conservator is dutiful in their observance of proscribed policies and procedures. They respond very well to detailed, documented, and organized SMS programs with clear rules, goals, and strong reasoning behind actions. They can become frustrated in SMS programs whose procedures and rules are too “open ended,” and may view management Pragmatists as “lazy.”
Maximizer: The Continuous Learner
The Maximizer risk management attitude approaches risk management through personal experience. They tend to be “easy going” in terms of safety, and put high value on the performance end of their duties.
This type of employee tends to be:
- Confident in his/her performance abilities;
- Willing to accept safety issues if they learn a lesson; and
- Less concerned with the SMS program than they are their personal experience with safety.
As managers, Maximizers value safety performance above all else. Being naturally more independent, such managers find aviation safety compliance a tedious task, and are more concerned with their personal ability to measure safety, such as through the use of their own safety standards. They take continuous improvement very seriously.
Such a risk management attitude has both costs and benefits for employees. They tend to have a proven track record of safety, are highly competent, and are somebody you probably wouldn’t worry about. At the same time, they may be vulnerable to overconfidence and make mistakes because of it. These employees would do well to stick to the motto “trust but double check.”
Traditionalist: The Balancer
Finally, the Traditionalist is probably the most “standard” type of risk management attitude. They believe that the best risk management practices are in line with the proscribed methods provided by experts, such as by safety oversight agencies like the FAA, ICAO, or EASA. Of the four risk management attitudes, they are:
- The most top down;
- The most compliance driven; and
- Focus the most on the framework of their SMS.
As managers, they try to balance good safety data and impeccable compliance. They monitor CPAs (corrective preventative actions) very closely and are serious in their efforts towards maintaining excellent documentation to prepare for both internal and external audits.
As employees, they tend to prescribe their risk management strategies for the attitudes and opinions of management. In uncertain safety situations, such employees will defect to management’s opinion rather than be assertive or interpret the applicable policy/procedure.
Final Thought: Know Your Peers’ Risk Attitude
While diversity in risk management attitudes is often the reason aviation SMS programs continually struggle and is their greatest weakness, such diversity can also be a safety program’s greatest strength.
SMS programs with diversity add what the Swiss Cheese Model would call “layers of protection.”
Different attitudes will identify and react to different risks, and therefore expand an SMS programs ability to identify and mitigate. Too much of one attitude promotes “groupthink.” Groupthink in SMS is dangerous because, though it adds one strong layer of risk management protection, it remains vulnerable to ideas, practices, and values outside of itself.
An often undervalued responsibility of SMS managers is to lose the thinking “my way is best” and try to understand what employees/managements’ risk management attitudes are so that the safety manager can best put differing viewpoints to good use.
When was the last time you reviewed your risk management workflows?
Are they too complex?
Are you locking yourself into a corner?
Will the auditors easily find elements you are not following?
These workflows may help you avoid an audit finding and improve your risk management efforts.