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3 Scenarios for Accountable Executives to Minimize Risk to Aviation SMS

Posted by Christopher Howell on Jan 6, 2021 6:00:00 AM Find me on:

Accountable Executives' SMS Nightmare

3 Scenarios for Accountable Executives to Minimize Risk to Aviation SMS

In most cases, aviation safety managers are:

  • Dedicated;
  • Hard working;
  • Resourceful; and
  • Excellent communicators.

Accountable executives rely on aviation safety managers to develop, implement and maintain their organizations' aviation safety management system (SMS). Accountable executives are "accountable."

Related Articles on Aviation SMS Accountability

There are a lot of moving parts to a fully implemented aviation SMS. If you don't believe me, simply look at the SMS documentation requirements. But how does an accountable executive know that their appointed safety manager is effectively managing their SMS?

How does an accountable executive monitor safety performance within the SMS? Monitoring safety performance must be a regular activity for every accountability in order to direct actions necessary to rectify substandard safety performance in a timely manner.

Accountable executive means "responsible executive," and there is usually only a single accountable executive for each aviation SMS implementation.

In this article, we shall discuss three scenarios where accountable executives take on unnecessary risk and a potential solution to mitigating this identified risk that commonly affects aviation SMS.

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Accountable Executives Have Ultimate Responsibility

As we stated, there can only be one account executive in an aviation SMS. This ensures that the owner or board does not delegate responsibility to functional managers who may end up being the scapegoat.

Accountable executives have ultimate control over the budget; therefore, they determine whether to focus resources toward safety or towards other production-related activities, such as acquiring additional aircraft, expanding airport operations, or purchasing the latest and greatest tools.

The SMS must be properly implemented and performed in all areas of the organization. The only person who, in every case, can guarantee influence throughout the entire organization, will be the accountable executive.

The logic behind the "accountable executive requirement" becomes readily apparent when one considers the various industry-segment types and sizes of operations that are affected by the SMS mandate. For small to very small organizations, determining who should be the accountable executive becomes a relatively easy exercise.

For very large aviation service providers, problems passing the responsibility (or passing the buck) to a lower-level executive are averted by holding an upper-level manager responsible. The accountable executive is expected to control operational resources, including

  • Financial; and
  • Human resources conducting operations.

Risks Shared by Accountable Executives

Trust and transparency are useful for account executives to reduce risk to aviation SMS

There are many unhealthy safety cultures, even for operators that have fully implemented SMS. There are many elements to determine whether an organization has a mature, healthy safety culture, such as:

  • transparency,
  • safety reporting numbers;
  • non-punitive reporting policies,
  • assigned safety tasks that are overdue; and
  • the practice of the just culture.

Some organizations have very poor safety cultures. This places accountable executives in a very risky position. Let's look at a few examples that come to mind where a poor safety culture should cause an accountable executive to worry. Finally, we'll look at how accountable executives can minimize their exposure to risk.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

Employees Fearful of Losing Their Jobs

There are companies where both employees and managers are fearful of losing their jobs. At these organizations, employees need to appear indispensable to their organizations' critical missions, which the aviation SMS has grown to become.

Employees at these companies hoard knowledge and refuse to share business processes or how to perform critical tasks.

When asked to train an alternate, these employees are resentful and provide the most superficial training. These types of employees may inwardly cheer when other employees fail, as their failure makes them look either better to upper management or at a minimum, it pulls the spotlight from their area of operations.

This is an example of a sick safety culture, where:

  • Safety information is not shared.
  • Acquiring reported safety issues requires considerable time and effort.
  • Employees don't bother participating in safety surveys or read safety promotion materials;
  • There is little transparency in the safety department to determine whether it is functioning properly.
  • External audits are commonly the method that upper management learns of a dysfunctional safety department.
  • Accurately monitoring SMS performance is impossible due to a lack of employee participation and management trust.

There is only one remedy for sick safety cultures, and it must come from the top, the accountable executive. SMS is implemented in a top-down approach. There are usually upper-level managers who support or encourage the toxic SMS environment. The managers need to leave the company or change their tunes regarding the SMS. Otherwise, the safe environment will never get better. Any time and money put toward the SMS will be wasted when a toxic safety culture is left to its own volition.

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Turnover of Accountable Executive From Outside

During changing or replacing the accountable executive, this may happen in a few different scenarios:

  • The accountable executive comes from existing managers (usually smooth);
  • Accountable executive come from outside the company; or
  • A family member of the previous accountable executive takes responsibility.

In the last two scenarios, existing managers may be resentful or even mistrustful of the new accountable executive. These managers may not offer full disclosure as to the current state of their aviation SMS.

In these cases, a new accountable executive does not have an established relationship with the safety team. Establishing trust requires time. Again, an external audit will help accountable executives uncover any risks that need to be mitigated.

An audit is not necessarily a bad thing. This is a case where the accountable executive can learn from an objective source about the state of the SMS.

Related Aviation SMS Audit Articles

Safety Manager Overwhelmed by SMS Documentation

Airport ground crew

In most cases, safety managers are appointed from within the company. In smaller companies, safety managers are performing the safety manager role as an additional duty. In short, they are not full-time safety professionals, but full-time pilots or directors of maintenance.

This changes as company size grows. From my experience, companies with more than sixty to eighty employees will have a full-time, dedicated safety manager.

Also from my experience, accountable executives are seldom reluctant to send safety managers to aviation SMS training. Yes, they become increasingly frugal when it comes to providing tools for safety managers to manage the SMS requirements, but they are seldom hesitant to send safety managers to SMS training courses.

And this is exactly where a common risk to accountable executives occurs. Safety managers may have training and understand the SMS requirements outlined in the ICAO SMS guidance material, but they don't have tools necessary to manage the incredible SMS documentation burden. SMS data management strategies must be reviewed with an eye toward the future, i.e., many years in advance when collected SMS data prepares the organization for predictive risk management processes.

The objective of the SMS is not to monitor aviation service providers. This may seem like what is going on, but regulatory agencies have already been monitoring operators for years.

Operators do not have the resources or the inclination to voluntarily adopt SMS. If this were so, there would have been no need to require operators to implement SMS. To add to this argument, increasing safety comes with a cost. For operators who are striving to provide the safest, most dependable service, they suffer an economic competitive disadvantage compared to operators focusing solely on production.

Regulators have realized that traditional safety programs failed to improve safety across the entire system. There were no standards. Safety programs were completely voluntary and management had no high expectations that safety would actually improve beyond the "mostly safe" operating statistics we saw in two decades preceding the SMS regulatory requirements.

With SMS, the objectives are for operators to follow a standard to allow them to:

  • proactively manage safety;
  • identify potential hazards;
  • determine risk, and
  • implement measures that mitigate the risk.

Without standards and guidelines, there would be a lot of confusion and more wasted effort than we see today with SMS implementations. SMS' objectives are to enhance operators' ability to identify safety issues and spot trends before they suffer preventable accidents or minor incidents. And this is why SMS data management tools are so very important. Without the proper tools to collect, store, retrieve, and present SMS data to management, there will be no way to efficiently mine the data to detect trends.

In addition, when safety managers spend all their time working on documentation, they have little time to focus on managing the SMS, such as with

  • safety promotion;
  • interfacing with external organizations; and
  • SMS performance monitoring activities.

When the accountable executive asks for a report, safety managers should not be spending inordinate amounts of time preparing a custom report. Safety managers should have SMS software tools to easily deliver SMS performance monitoring reports. In a perfect world, the accountable executive and upper-level managers should be able to retrieve their own safety reports. This is certainly possible with modern, robust aviation SMS databases designed to manage all of an SMS' data requirements.

Related Aviation SMS Database Software Articles

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How Can Accountable Managers Reduce Risk?

We outlined three scenarios where accountable managers are faced with seemingly uncontrollable risks from unhealthy safety cultures.

To review, the risk stems from:

  • Employees fearful of losing their jobs;
  • New accountable executives not having developed relationships with the safety team; and
  • Upper management not providing correct or adequate tools for SMS documentation.

Trust and transparency seem to be the best way to mitigate this risk. Unfortunately, this is too optimistic and certainly unrealistic in many cultures. Let's face it, a punitive culture is not a trusting culture, nor will it ever become a just culture.

Voluntary transparency is also impossible for every scenario described above. In the first two instances, safety managers are not interested in offering any information that may place them or the safety department in an unfavorable light. In the last scenario, the overwhelmed safety manager is unable to offer any "valuable" transparency because he does not have the tools to provide transparency in a timely fashion.

Final Thoughts on Accountable Executives Protecting Themselves

Aviation SMS software dashboard showing KPIs allows accountable executives a view of the SMS program

Nobody likes to be the last person to know about deficiencies that can affect the survival of his or her company. Aviation SMS audits are how most accountable executives learn of problems with their safety teams.

Transparency of the SMS can be enhanced by modern aviation safety software. Dashboard reports are very comprehensive and easy to understand. Unlike highly complicated systems in the past, modern aviation SMS software tools are user-friendly.

Accountable executives and other managers can pull real-time reports with ease. SMS documentation is managed on the fly. Accountability is increased as there will be fewer items that will fall through the cracks. Furthermore, aviation SMS auditors love modern SMS software programs because they were developed for the specific purpose of managing ICAO-compliant SMS.

Furthermore, user-friendly SMS software tools are easy to learn, thereby knowledge transfer takes less time. This is incredibly useful for companies that have managers reluctant to train alternates.

The final word is:

Risk can be reduced greatly with properly implemented aviation SMS tools. Accountable executives are able to easily monitor risk and enforce accountability from their management teams.

Final note: Three specific companies formed the basis of this article. Please don't ask me their names.

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  • Enforce accountability,
  • Enhance transparency,
  • Engender trust, and
  • Reduce risk to accountable executives.

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Last updated in May 2024.

Topics: 2-Safety Risk Management

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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