Aviation SMS Implementations Are Result of Many Small Actions
The process of aviation safety management systems (SMS), simply put, is the conglomeration of many small actions on the part of safety management teams, operational managers and employees.
Actions such as:
- Identifying and reporting safety issues;
- Running safety issues through a repeatable risk management process;
- Facilitating safety communications;
- Proactively identifying and mitigating hazards;
- Assessment of risk;
- Drafting and promoting effective policies and procedures;
- Constant monitoring of environmental changes and threats;
- Searching for safety-related trends;
- And so on.
Have you read...
- Why Should We Implement Aviation SMS?
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Where to Focus Aviation SMS Implementation Efforts?
The list of common SMS activities is extensive, but not all areas are created equal. In actual practice, the things that hold most aviation SMS back from being first-in-class SMS implementations are:
- Not completely implementing the aviation SMS across all four SMS components (or pillars);
- Resistance from employees (a safety policy or safety promotion issue);
- Non-compliance (i.e., audits); and
- Lack of communication across different areas of the SMS.
In other words, these are areas that the aviation industry as a whole needs helps with. Here are 4 different types of simple but extremely effective tools that can greatly improve the performance of struggling SMS implementations.
1 – Earnest Gap Analysis with Regular Reviews
Basically, all aviation safety managers know what a gap analysis is. It may be considered as a "self-audit" of your existing systems and processes to determine shortcomings to your SMS implementation.
The reality is that most safety managers perform a gap analysis once, or with great infrequency. Based on 12 years of aggregated data, we have learned that only approximately 10-12% of safety managers review their gap analysis with any sort of regularity.
I like to think that a gap analysis for aviation SMS implementations is like GPS for traveling. It tells you
- where you been,
- where you are, and
- what you need to do to accomplish your aviation safety performance goals.
It’s certainly possible for SMS implementations to be successful without performing regular review of their gap analysis. However, taking the time to conduct routine reviews of the gap analysis will significantly increase efficiency and save time in:
- SMS implementation processes;
- Safety performance analysis; and
- SMS audit preparation.
To put it simply a gap analysis is an aviation SMS' implementation checklist. While there are also SMS implementation plans to help guide SMS implementations, an SMS implementation plan checklist is more general and less detailed than a gap analysis checklist.
Different oversight organizations have different models for a gap analysis, such as:
SMS implementations, in almost every case, desperately need more frequent reviews of their gap analysis. The process of reviewing the gap analysis is incredibly beneficial for smoother, more detailed SMS implementations – and ultimately what is beneficial for an aviation SMS translates to a greater level of safety for workers and customers.
Related Aviation SMS Gap Analysis Articles
- What Is a Gap Analysis in Aviation SMS?
- SMS First Steps - Gap Analysis
- 4 Best Aviation SMS Gap Analysis Strategies for SMS Implementations
2 – Audit Checklists As Pre-Audit Preparation
SMS audits should be a regular rock in your SMS shoe. They can be a pain, but they are extremely necessary and are of great value to the aviation industry as a whole to provide assurance that the aviation SMS is working as intended. Interested parties of SMS audits will include:
Standards bodies, such as IATA and IS-BAO; and
Some clients' contractual requirements.
Generally, companies that perform well on aviation SMS audits are known for having a best-in-class SMS implementation reinforced with effective SMS data management strategies. Aviation service providers that regularly shine on SMS audits will have an SMS database to assist with managing the onerous SMS documentation requirements.
One of the reasons aviation SMS audits can be so frustrating is that they can be:
- Stressful, as you may not know what the safety inspector will focus on this month;
- Overwhelming, as there are so many moving parts for an aviation SMS implementation; and
- Require a lot of preparation in addition to safety teams' regular workload.
Enter: safety audit checklist to prepare for your audits. Reviewing aviation SMS audit checklists makes organizational audit preparation a seamless process, and creates a clear workflow of required tasks. Moreover, checklists ensure that aviation safety managers don’t overlook under-emphasized areas of their SMS implementation.
Managers who take the time to use SMS audit checklists will reap the benefits when auditors arrive. They will know exactly what auditors need to see and can have auditors in and out in only a couple of hours.
Related Aviation SMS Audit Articles
- How to Conduct Internal SMS Audits in Aviation Industry
- 9 Best Strategies for Aviation Safety Audit Preparation [Free Audit Checklists]
- 5 Ways to Avoid Common Aviation SMS Audit Findings
3 – A Safety Champion for Your Aviation SMS Implementation
As I have touted before, safety management is not the same as safety leadership. Too often managers confuse their formal role within an organization (manager) with the informal role of leadership. Safety leadership is not a right, it is earned.
Leadership can make or break any structured program, much less a formal aviation SMS implementation. Often, safety managers that feel insecure about their safety leadership may try to enforce their “position” with strict, alienating rules that cripple their relationship with front-line employees. However, the idea that a safety manager needs to be the SMS champion remains a false assumption. They certainly can be, but a safety champion is someone who:
- Is regularly visible to employees;
- Is charismatic;
- An excellent communicator;
- Someone who is universally respected and/or well-liked; and
- Sets an example of safety attitude.
Safety champions can be a seasoned employee, a manager, or simply someone who is popular in your organization and supports the program. Safety champions can fill a part-time position in the SMS and exit this position once the safety culture reaches an acceptable level of sincerely adopting the SMS tenets.
The basic fact is that many safety managers will be better managers than they will be safety champions. It’s up to safety managers to be honest whether they are the right person, and if not, then focus their abilities on safety management and fulfilling the SMS documentation requirements. In these cases, it may be easier to find someone who does fit the safety champion role.
A safety champion, while a person, is also a type of safety promotional tool that safety managers need to consider as a valuable part of their SMS implementation. This concept is especially relevant in the early stages of an SMS implementation when there may be considerable resistance to the SMS by management and employees alike. Effective safety champions have the ability to really turn a safety culture around.
4 – Formal Communication Tools
If I were to choose one area in aviation SMS implementations that is absolutely the most critical component of regular interaction, it would clearly be communication. Data shows that it is the Human Factor responsible for the most safety incidents. Considering that Human Factors account for approximately 70% of all safety incidents, then lack of communication is perhaps the single biggest hazard in the aviation industry.
Lack of communication will ruin relationships between employees and safety management teams, as well as with upper management and employees. Formal communication tools give everyone a space to stay current on the same exact information (such as online safety message board or group chat) and have formal rules of communication (such as submitting safety reports).
Formal communication can be anything with structure, such as:
- Employee hazard reporting (which are communications to management about safety concerns);
- An online message board which posts messages that everyone can see;
- Procedures outlining interactions on the ground floor;
- Safety banners or posters; or
- Safety newsletters.
Formal communication tools provide a place of interaction that has clear rules and boundaries. While informal communication is at least as important, it’s easy to forget just how far-reaching formal communication is within a formal aviation SMS implementation.
Formal communication strategies are especially important in organizations with employees from diverse backgrounds and those having second-language barriers. Other communication challenges arise with companies that are very spread out, where employees have drastically different duties and communication channels are logically separated due to the nature of their assigned positions. An example would be pilots who seldom interface with maintenance engineers. In these cases, formal communication delivers common understanding.
Related Aviation Safety Promotion Articles
- What Is Safety Promotion Component (the "Overlooked" Pillar)
- Why Safety Promotion Requires More Focus in Aviation SMS
- Stay on Top of Aviation Safety Promotion with SMS Newsletters
Final Thought: Beyond SMS Requirements
Often, the best tools require extra effort on the part of safety management teams. Taking the time to be/find a safety champion is clearly above and beyond the scope of ICAO or FAA requirements. Also, one would probably be hard-pressed to even find the phrase “safety champion” on their websites.
But like audit checklists and regular gap analysis reviews, these are tools that are not recommended by oversight agencies but none the less can be instrumental in improving the long-term health and effectiveness of aviation SMS implementations. Finally, these tools will also help your organization comply with regulatory requirements.
SMS implementation checklists serve as a great review of your SMS. When was the last time you compared your SMS implementation against a regulatory-compliant SMS checklist?
Published May 2016. Last updated March 2020.