Decentralization of Information
Transparency boils down to a very simple issue: information.
Specifically, control over and access to information. As I have said before, it’s a hot topic these days.
WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Sony, the food industry – all are examples of major front page scandals about access to information.
That aside, I think transparency in aviation SMS programs needs to be looked at not as the "end all be all" pinnacle of an aviation SMS program, but as one critical part or method in a program that leads to healthy, mature, adaptable aviation SMS program. Understanding it simply as how to manage information makes it much easier to deal with than blowing it up on a pedestal with a capitol T, Transparency.
Key to Optimizing Aviation SMS Programs
Getting there is as simple as this: decentralize your information.
When information is hoarded and carefully controlled by management or a few individuals in a program, the fact is that aviation safety transparency just won’t happen. SMS programs continue to become more complex, to the point where they will soon simply be impossible to manage by one or several people. It is increasingly imperative that aviation organizations’ management let go of despotic info-hoarding practices.
Success of aviation safety programs will continue to depend less on the historical hierarchy of top down SMS, and more on the ability of every employee to make informed decisions based on relevant information. Those decisions can’t happen when upper management is burying information like a squirrel hoarding acorns in October.
And when we are talking about information, we are talking about virtually (or ideally) almost all information, except items which require further investigation or are potentially “sensitive.” Moreover, such a step is a big one towards implementing an ICAO compliant SMS program or an FAA compliant program.
Free Flowing Communication
Of course, I’ve spoken with enough safety managers to know that these points are all very agreeable, but are often discussed with same tone as “oh wouldn’t that be nice to win the lotto.” And such a tone indicates an equal mindset. I think the reason for the “wouldn’t that be nice” thinking is a result putting transparency on a pedestal.
Let’s break down “decentralized information” a little bit further. It’s the same idea as free flowing information. Part of this is to transition from understanding SMS programs as something like an org chart:
And more like a cell, the most fundamental formation in nature.
While org charts are helpful for understanding the technical hierarchy of a program, imagining the structure of information-flow in the same manner is the exact line of thinking that leads to information bottlenecking and non-transparent information practices.
Transform Top-Down Structure to Symbiotic Relationship
Information should disseminate back and forth between management and the general population. Free sharing sends several messages loud and clear to an organization:
- Management trusts its front line employees
- The aviation SMS program depends on employees
- Management would like to break down the management-employee barrier that plagues so many organizations
Perhaps keeping open information will fall on deaf or a apathetic ears. But if there is one way in which safety programs do in practice tend to be very top-down is in the attitudes of all employees. Attitudes of management in a system has a strange way of trickling down to all levels of the whole system. Wouldn’t you agree?
The result is a management-employee relationshipwith open line of communication and a level of trust that is not possible in non-transparent programs.
Eliminate Dependencies With Extreme Prejudice
Dependencies are the plague of the older SMS legacy. Most SMS managers have been there. Not to be negative, but it is generally one manager who is unwilling to adapt to changes in:
- SMS program
All too common scenarios that we hear about all time is about a manger who has been in the industry for a long time and is unwilling to put any effort into adapting to a new aviation SMS software, and would rather do things the “traditional way.”
Or the manager who would rather take care of his/her department “under the table.” Or simply a manager who may be insecure about his/her position in the company, and creates an information “silo” so as to be indispensable. These are common real world scenarios that create obstructive people-dependencies – which ones have you dealt with?
Such practices will completely roadblock any efforts towards transparency. And though it may lead to an uncomfortably candid conversation, eliminating such dependencies needs to happen to develop a transparent program.
Final Thought: Transparency Is a Self-Managing System
As I have said, SMS programs will only continue to become more complex in order to keep up with:
- Rapidly changing technology
- Evolving hazards
- Larger programs
- The weight of historical compliance
In smaller and older aviation SMS programs, a management down approach to managing safety was (and is in small programs) more viable. But that’s increasingly becoming impossible. Complex systems need to function more like a living, self-managing being, and transparency is one important step in that direction.
One way to get employees involved is to have a good non-punitive reporting policy. Here is a great resource that will save you time and energy either creating a new policy or reviewing an existing policy.