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10 Tasks for Starting Aviation SMS Implementation (& in This Order)

Posted by Tyler Britton on Aug 31, 2021 5:44:00 AM

Most Important Items for Starting SMS Implementation

10 Tasks for Starting Aviation SMS Implementation

If you are reading this article, chances are that you either already have started implementing an aviation safety management system (SMS), or you are considering an SMS implementation.

Starting an aviation SMS implementation from ground zero may be confusing and difficult for any safety professional, much less a layperson who may be tasked to implement an aviation SMS. There is so much to do, such as

  • gap analysis;
  • implementation plan;
  • system description and
  • SMS training.

There is SO much guidance (too much guidance perhaps) that may even confound matters worse. It’s no wonder new safety managers feel like they are drowning whenever an SMS implementation gets dropped in their lap.

Related Aviation SMS Implementation Articles

Where to Start the SMS Implementation Process?

The essential and most important questions safety managers have to start their aviation SMS implementation are:

  • What do I need to do to get started?
  • How do I get started?

These two separate questions are two sides of the same coin: what tasks are most needed to get the aviation SMS started? Many safety managers fail to try and answer this question and instead get lost in (misguided) SMS planning, such as with an SMS implementation plan.

The following tasks will provide the foundation you need to get clarity for:

  • Ascertaining what are the most essential needs of your SMS implementation based on your circumstances;
  • Developing a realistic aviation SMS implementation plan that may (or may not) be scrutinized by regulatory agencies;
  • Establishing the most effective risk management process that aligns with the complexity of your operations;
  • Evaluating your safety culture to determine whether it can really adapt to proposed changes; and
  • Understanding how to create a well-rounded safety policy/promotion.

Here are the 10 tasks you can follow for beginning your aviation SMS implementation. These tasks are in order – try to complete each task as fully as possible before moving on.

Download SMS Implementation Plan

1 – Get Sincere Upper Management Support

Upper management support

First and foremost, it is absolutely, critically, SO important that your accountable executive (and upper management team if applicable) supports the SMS initiative. Without upper management support, your SMS implementation will:

  • Not be sustainable;
  • Have no "meaningful" accountability for success or failures;
  • Lack needed resources;
  • Lack sincere adoption by the entire organization; and
  • Not feature the kind of top-down behavior needed for long-term success.

Getting upper management support means:

  • Accountable executive takes ownership and responsibility for SMS implementation;
  • Accountable executive confirms SMS is functioning across the entire organization;
  • Upper management is willing to provide financial and human resources to support both the initial implementation as well as maintaining the system;
  • Accountable executive and upper management regularly review organizational safety performance; and
  • Accountable executive is directly involved in addressing substandard safety performance.

It should be clear whether or not you have top management support.

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2 – Acquire Aviation SMS Data Management Tools FIRST

The biggest mistake we see safety management teams make when starting their new aviation SMS implementation is that they don’t acquire aviation SMS data management tools first. Why is this a mistake?

Consider the following scenario:

  • Safety manager completes SMS implementation and required SMS documentation without choosing aviation risk management tool;
  • Safety manager develops safety policy, risk management, and safety assurance processes;
  • Safety manager finally adopts a risk management tool; and
  • Risk management tool has complete, built-in SMS functionality that:
    • Would have saved considerable implementation time and headache
    • Has been accepted by regulatory agencies for many years
    • Conflicts with existing processes, requiring you to rewrite your processes and SMS manual

Get your tool FIRST, such as aviation SMS software, and you will have:

  • Many built-in processes that satisfy regulatory compliance;
  • A road map for implementing a compliant aviation SMS; and
  • Built-in functionality for easily establishing a safety policy, safety promotion, hazard register, etc., that will save you considerable time on your SMS implementation.

SMS Pro Fulfills SRM & SA Compliance Requirement

3 – Identify and Organize Key Personnel (Plus Org Chart)

Ground operation airport

An important part of building your SMS foundation is organizing the aviation SMS by identifying key roles and responsibilities. The key roles should:

  • Play an important role in hazard identification and subsequent risk management processes;
  • Have explicit safety duties and responsibilities for all employees, based on their SMS role;
  • Delineate the flow of safety information throughout the organization and to external stakeholders; and
  • Be organized into an intelligible, easy-to-understand, safety org chart.

The safety org chart will:

  • Reflect real-world flow of safety information;
  • Map out your safety hierarchy; and
  • Visually outline key personnel for which to develop SMS duties and responsibilities.

Related Articles on Aviation SMS Org Charts and SMS Roles

4 – Establish Safety Duties and Responsibilities of Roles in Your Company

Based on how you organized your aviation SMS by roles (previous task) you will need to list duties and responsibilities for each role in your organization.

The primary difference between a duty and responsibility is as follows:

  • Duty: Obligations, tasks, and actions required by the SMS role, such as:
    • Managing reported safety issues and/or audit findings,
    • Reviewing safety policy,
    • Drafting and publishing safety communications, and
    • Reviewing organizational safety performance.
  • Responsibility: How that user is accountable for safety operations, such as:
    • Ensuring all assigned issues are brought to an acceptable level of safety,
    • Confirming that safety procedures reflect real-world operations, and
    • Ensure complete analysis of safety issues for trend analysis.

Download Aviation SMS Safety Accountabilities

In your SMS implementation, establishing duties and responsibilities includes:

  • Listing duties and responsibilities of ALL employees (such as “identify hazards and report safety concerns”);
  • Listing which safety elements each role is responsible for (such as “Ensure that all exposure is successfully mitigated for assigned safety issues” for the department head role);
  • Listing what the duties are for each role such as “Manage corrective actions and preventive” for department heads; and
  • Communicating these duties and responsibilities on a regular basis.

Related Articles on Safety Accountability

5 – Create Key Hazard Reporting Policies

Creating key hazard reporting policies is an easy but important step in communicating what kind of hazard reporting activity you expect from employees. Your hazard reporting policy also affects safety culture, so be careful. This includes:

These elements must naturally be communicated to employees and should be included in your aviation SMS training curriculum.

Download Non-Punitive Policy Templates

6 – Evaluate Existing Safety Culture

You need to understand the current state of Norms (Human Factors) at your organization. This can easily be accomplished in two ways:

  • You should already have an idea of how receptive your company is to the risk management program, but can clarify this by talking to employees; and
  • Best-practice: create an anonymous safety culture survey to distribute to employees and collect data.

The safety culture survey data will give you a starting point to understand current the state of affairs and build upon it in the future. Make notes about areas of safety culture that need help, and add them to a list called: “SMS Elements That Need My Attention.” This list will be invaluable later.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

7 – Review Historical Reporting Data (If Any)

In conjunction with understanding safety culture, you need to also understand the historical safety performance of your organization. If your SMS initiative is completely new and you have no legacy safety program, this task is not applicable. Likewise, if you had a legacy safety program and it was simply a "safety program on paper," then this is not applicable. If you do have historical safety data and a functioning safety program, simply review it to see:

  • Which elements are applicable to your new, formal SMS implementation;
  • The quality of hazard reporting culture, i.e., number of safety reports per employee per month; and
  • Any high-level problems (such as risk controls, risk management bottlenecks, organizational silos, etc.)

Add any major problem areas to your list, “SMS Elements That Need My Attention.” This list will be invaluable later.

Hazard/Issue Reporting Poster

8 – Perform Gap Analysis

A gap analysis will help you get a high-level overview of SMS requirements and help you compare your existing safety capabilities with an industry standard. A sincere look at your organization using a gap analysis will help you determine:

  • Where your safety initiative is now; and
  • Where you want it to be in the future

There are some questions that you should be considering when you contemplate a gap analysis. They will include:

  • Which gap analysis model should we use?
  • When should we perform the gap analysis?
  • How often should the gap analysis be reviewed once completed?
  • Who should be assigned to complete the gap analysis?
  • What do we do with the findings from the gap analysis?

These are all very valid questions but beyond the scope of this article. I will include some useful resources to help address these concerns.

Once you have completed your initial gap analysis, take your negative findings and add them to your list of “SMS Elements That Need My Attention.”

Related Aviation SMS Gap Analysis Articles

Download Aviation Gap Analysis Resources

9 – Create Safety Goals and Objectives

Safety goals and objectives

Creating goals and objectives is a task where you embark on defining what safety performance means to your organization.

  • Goals are high-level, qualitative elements of safety that you would like to achieve in your SMS implementation;
  • Objectives are directly tied to goals and are specific, measurable ways of assessing your goals.

Safety goals and objectives should be communicated throughout the organization. This generates awareness among employees as to what is important to upper management. Another important consideration is to seek participation from employee groups as to what they feel is important. Whenever employees play an active role in establishing safety goals and objectives, there will be an increase in "employee buy-in" or employees taking ownership of these safety goals.

Since you are just starting the SMS implementation, don't "make a science out of this exercise." Keep it simple. This does not have to be perfect and to tell you the truth, it is unlikely that you will ever reach perfection. Goals and objectives are meant to change. Furthermore, safety goals and objectives are highly subjective. What is important to your company this year may seem trivial three years from now.

Keep it simple. There will be time and opportunity to improve later.

Related Articles on Safety Goals and Objectives

10 – Establish Key Performance Indicators

Chances are that you have not yet identified your KPIs (key performance indicators) or SPIs for safety purists (safety performance indicators). KPIs are the same as SPIs, except SPIs are a subset of organizational KPIs.


Listing out the company's safety goals and objectives will help you determine which data elements are required to track the progress of your safety goals and objectives. These data elements will naturally become your KPIs. Each one of your KPIs should align with one or more of your safety goals.

Based on your objectives, you should easily be able to choose your key performance indicators (KPIs) based on available data points.

Key performance indicators will initially become the baseline for performance in your SMS implementation. Why do I say "initially?" KPIs are dynamic. Just as the operating environment changes, your KPIs will be expected to change as the organization changes focus to address developing challenges.

Download Aviation KPIs Resources

Final Thought: Create Implementation Plan LATER

Now, once all of these tasks are complete, you can breathe a little. You have some of your SMS foundations in place, and you can begin to plan.

Remember your list of “SMS Elements That Need My Attention”? Now it’s time to use this list.

  • Review it;
  • Establish which safety pillar and/or other major elements of your SMS implementation need the most work;
  • Acquire an SMS implementation plan checklist; and
  • Reorder the checklist to best fit the safety needs in your list.

Download SMS Implementation Plan

Last updated in October 2023.

Topics: Aviation SMS Implementation

Site content provided by Northwest Data Solutions is meant for informational purposes only. Opinions presented here are not provided by any civil aviation authority or standards body.



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