SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

2 Reasons Top Safety Managers Fail in Aviation SMS Programs

Posted by Christopher Howell on May 16, 2016 6:00:00 AM Find me on:

Aviation SMS Programs Implemented in Top Down ApproachAccountable Executives Must Take Ownership of Aviation SMS Programs

Every aviation safety management system (SMS) program must be implemented in a top-down fashion.

There can be no other way, regardless how liberal you think your company is.

But what is the top down approach and why are safety managers failing at SMS implementations when using this "top-down" SMS implementation strategy?

We will quickly look at:

  • What is the top-down approach;
  • Two reasons why upper level management fails; and
  • Offer suggestions to aviation safety managers.


What is Top Down Approach in Your Aviation SMS Program

For those who took Organizational Behavior as one of your college courses, you may recognize the autocratic leadership style, while those of us who have learned SMS outside of college know this as the top-down management approach.

For aviation SMS programs, top down leadership is where the Accountable Executive drives the change that requires the aviation service provider to implement and maintain their aviation SMS program.

Safety Managers Fail If They Solely Drive Change

The most common reason that aviation SMS programs fail is due to the lack of top management support. Without the accountable executive's blessing, the SMS program will fail. End of story.

Top management support comes in the form of continuous demonstrations of commitment to the safety program. This commitment is most commonly seen as:

  • Attendance at safety meetings;
  • Visible physical support (walk-arounds) with safety managers;
  • Regular safety communications coming directly from Accountable Executive; and
  • Providing resources to implement and maintain the aviation SMS program.

Without this support, the best intentioned aviation safety manager will fail. Now let's take a look at the bottom up approach.

Bottom Up Approach in Safety Management Systems

Joe is a pilot. He is an energetic, Type A personality who prides himself in achieving the impossible. A manager in the company tells Joe today that he is the new Safety Manager. "Joe, you are still the pilot, but you are also the safety manager."

This is a common scenario. Maybe the owner told Joe he was the safety manager, maybe a department head gave the order. Regardless, Joe is left to try to "figure out this SMS business."

Other employees may know that Joe is the "safety guy." Other employees may give him some token recognition, but Joe must charge ahead and 

  • Learn what is required in an SMS program;
  • Put together a process to manage the SMS program;
  • Get other employees involved (earnestly) in the SMS program;
  • Be prepared for regulatory and client auditors of the SMS program.

Learning What is Required Through Aviation SMS Training Courses

Joe has a lot of work. Remember, Joe is still a pilot and must still "be an earner." Only larger companies (greater than 60-80 employees) have dedicated safety managers. If he is lucky, and the company has budget, he may get management to send him to an SMS course, such as those at:

What we see more commonly is that Joe will hire a consultant that can come to his location and provide some SMS training. These consultant have become very common within the past six years. It has become difficult to find a good SMS consultant because anyone who can spell SMS has called themselves an expert. If you are Joe, and need a short list of SMS consultants, consider these highly qualified SMS consultants:

Yes, I'm sure there are more, but I cannot vouch for them.

What Safety Managers Learn At SMS Training Courses

Regardless of whether Joe attends an SMS training course or the SMS consultant comes to Joe's site, Joe will learn that in order for their company's SMS program to be successful, he must have absolute support from the Accountable Executive. If there isn't a defined Accountable Executive, then Joe must do "needful." Top Level Manager Support must be visible and continuous for achieving a successful SMS implementation

Yes, he must find the accountable executive and ensure the accountable executive understands;

  • What is an aviation SMS program;
  • The SMS program is required (in most cases if you are an aviation service provider);
  • His legal and moral responsibility regarding the success of the SMS program; and
  • What is required to have a healthy SMS program.

In short, Joe must turn around the bottom up assignment of being the safety manager and implementing "Joe's Safety Program." Joe must return the responsibility of this SMS program and place it back to where it belongs:

  • On the Accountable Executive's plate.

Joe Must Be Implementing the Boss' SMS Program

There is a misconception that the safety manager own the SMS program. In reality, the accountable executive owns the SMS program and all employees must realize that the safety manager is merely "managing' or "helping out" the the accountable executive in ensuring the SMS program is properly implemented and maintained.

What are Two Reasons Safety Managers Fail

In conclusion, we see that safety managers fail because:

  • They are implementing "their" SMS program and not the Boss' SMS program; and
  • The Boss doesn't know it's really their SMS program; or
  • Accountable Executive is not taking ownership of the SMS program.

SMS training for both the boss and safety managers will certainly help rectify this issue.


Get SMS Training

And Another Major Reason?

Another reason SMS programs fail is related to the above topic: Lack of adequate tools to manage the SMS program. This stems from ignorance and is often caused by SMS consultants wanting to sound knowledgeable and leaving Excel speadsheets with their clients.

Don't think the SMS consultant is doing you a favor if he gives you an Excel spreadsheet and Word docs to manage your SMS program.

Excel spreadsheets are not effective to manage an SMS program. I've worked with literally hundreds of companies' SMS programs. Excel does not work and is the short-term measure (or corrective action). Long term corrective actions will focus on a database. That is why EASA now requires a database for aviation service providers to store their SMS reports.

Here are some inexpensive alternatives that will give your Accountable Executive some peace of mind:


Hazard Reporting Solution Demo Videos


Risk Management Solution Demo Videos

Topics: 3-Safety Assurance


Best Practices for SMS Programs

View SMS Training Providers

We researched SMS training providers for you. See list of training providers by region.

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Watch SMS Pro Demo Videos

These two on-demand videos offer:

  • High level overview of SMS Pro;
  • Hazard Reporting & Risk Management walk-through.
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SMS Implementation Videos

These two videos illustrate how to use software tools to manage an ICAO compliant SMS program, including proactive and predictive safety management processes.

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