Time to Be Honest about Your Aviation SMS Implementation
Creating successful aviation safety management systems (SMS) requires a great deal of honesty on the part of:
- accountable executives;
- operational department heads;
- safety management teams; and
- front-line employees.
In many cases, managers and employees alike tend to wear rose-colored glasses when evaluating operational safety and the efficacy of their SMS implementation.
There is a natural tendency for aviation service providers to believe that their SMS implementations are in better shape than what they truly are. To confirm their beliefs, they may say to themselves, "we haven't suffered from any major accidents lately and our budget expenditures have not increased for damaged equipment." This complacent attitude is an early warning sign that signals potential trouble may visit your operations.
Related Aviation SMS Implementation Articles
- Why Should We Implement Aviation SMS?
- How to Evaluate Risk Controls and Risk to Aviation SMS Implementations
- 4 Management Failures That Kill Aviation SMS Implementations
We’ve Always Done It This Way – Where Have You Heard This Before?
Upper-level managers have gradually become comfortable with historic accident rates. This sense of complacency is very natural for the "old-school" managers that have grown accustomed to operational budgets that factor in these recurring expenses to address hangar rash and damage from seemingly "unavoidable" events that "oddly" appear year after year.
Does this sound like your company?
It's odd that managers can grow accustomed to spending vast sums on "unavoidable" events, yet are reluctant to spend additional sums to decrease the adverse effects of these recurring "unavoidable" events. Furthermore, it is not a mystery why these "recurring, avoidable" events occur year after year. It is no secret, really. The reason these events occur year after year is that
- Implemented risk controls are not effective; and/or
- Employees are not reporting all safety events, including minor accidents and close calls; and/or
- The aviation SMS' risk management processes are not effectively treating reported safety events (again, safety risk controls).
How to Change Past Behaviors That Hinder Safety Improvements
There are three primary areas of an aviation SMS that require regular review with a focus on addressing complacency:
- Structure: such as safety policies, safety accountabilities, risk management processes, and oversight;
- Philosophy: such as how Human Factors are viewed in the safety context; and
- Motivator: what drives the SMS’ maturation toward a healthy safety culture.
There is no doubt that structured bureaucracy is the backbone of a purposeful, well-designed aviation SMS. Formal approaches toward accident investigations, and aviation safety as a whole, has made the aviation industry extremely safe. That being said, all levels of an organization need to recognize the importance of incorporating SMS philosophies, motivating factors, and risk management processes into daily operational processes to improve efficiencies and also to continue the trend of making aviation operations increasingly safer.
In case you are sleeping...
We are talking about "continuous improvement of your aviation SMS!"
Here are 4 ways most aviation SMS implementations can improve safety performance. But if this is not enough to motivate you to read further, these ideas as equally applicable to improving operations that contribute to your organization's mission, whether your main mission is to:
- Earn a profit for shareholders;
- Provide a public service; or
- Facilitate aircraft and passenger movements in a military setting.
Related Articles on Safety Performance Monitoring
- How to Conduct Safety Performance Monitoring and Measurement
- 5 Useful Safety Performance Monitoring Tools in Aviation SMS
- Best Tip for Safety Assurance Monitoring in Aviation SMS
Being Honest about Using Human Factors in Aviation SMS
Human Factors in aviation SMS are, for the most part, very misunderstood. I continually come across scenarios that are a glaringly poor example of how to use Human Factors in aviation SMS implementations.
The problem is twofold. First is the idea that humans are a "problem" to be fixed. Secondly, that human factors defined within The Dirty Dozen need to be avoided, rather than mitigated. Here’s the thing about Human Factors that I have never seen addressed:
- In any system, the sum of the different parts will always be more intelligent than any one part.
This is important for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, it shows us that the team of employees is a successful solution for mitigating any one individual’s particular problem, be it fatigue, apathy, etc.
Secondly, it suggests the importance of having a well-balanced and diverse set of employees and attitudes within an aviation SMS' environment.
SMS implementations that are too prescriptive, too top-down, have an employee base of one demographic, or one type of risk management attitude. These SMS implementations miss out on the benefits of having multiple perspectives.
Changing How You Use Human Factors in Aviation SMS
What I am suggesting is that Human Factors in aviation SMS need to be used as a solution and a reason for inviting diversity into your aviation SMS. Diversity is a balance of:
- Various risk management tools suitable for a wide variety of circumstances and events;
- Different risk management attitudes; and
- A balance of strong SMS structure and operational incentives.
If managers are only using Human Factors to identify problems to be fixed, then the solution is usually to eradicate diversity in an attempt to control the problem. When safety managers are considering top-down structural safety and bottom-up operational safety, they need to have the philosophy that, while people are unwittingly responsible for accidents, they are also the primary solution for risk mitigation.
Related Human Factors Articles
- Let’s Talk Human Factors - Origin of Dirty Dozen
- Let’s Talk Human Factors - Complacency
- 5 Things to Know about Aviation SMS Human Factors
Balance between Bottom-Up and Top-Down Approach to Aviation Safety
Managers and line employees in organizations with expansive bureaucratic requirements have to understand the important functional differences between:
- operational aspects; and
- structural aspects of aviation SMS implementations.
SMS structure, such as SMS implementation of policies and procedures, is a top-down approach. Operational safety is the actions and attitudes of employees while actually working in their everyday roles or positions.
The difference is extremely important when it comes to two rather common attitudes in SMS implementations, both of which relate to the Human Factor of complacency:
- Management that relies solely on implementing a prescriptive aviation SMS according to their regulatory requirements; and
- Employees who are content to simply let management address all things related to the SMS.
What both attitudes have in common is apathy towards the operational – i.e. performing – parts of the SMS implementation. Proactive aviation safety is a symbiotic effort between management and front-line employees, and both parties need to be involved in maximizing the efficiency of the SMS structure and operational environment.
Structural safety and SMS implementation must happen in a top-down approach. However, operational safety needs to be managed from the bottom up. Front-line employees need to have the mindset, support, and responsibility that their attitudes drive functional safety. Management needs to be willing to be more proactive by structuring their top-down SMS safety procedures and policies around the operational environment rather than imposing upon it.
Accept That Management May Not Be the Safety Leader
Safety management is not the same as safety leadership. In any system, managers too often confuse their given, structural role as manager with the operational, informal role of leader. Leadership is something that is earned, and anyone associated with an aviation SMS implementation can become the “safety champion” that visibly supports the SMS and continually motivates others to embrace this new, safe way of doing business.
Leadership can also make or break SMS implementations, as managers provide a powerful incentive for employees to support and intentionally further the aims of the SMS implementation. Aviation safety managers need to be honest when it comes to their particular skill set. Safety managers who are poor leaders feel insecure about their role. These insecure leaders usually try to enforce their leadership role with rules and behaviors that alienate and cripple relationships with front-line employees.
Considering that those same front-line employees are identifying hazards, are responsible for the safe operations of the program, and will be the primary carrier of proactive risk management techniques, alienating them is not an option. Safety managers need to understand that leaders drive proactive aviation safety by:
- Being regularly visible to employees;
- Demonstrating charisma;
- Being an excellent communicator;
- Is personable, fair and well-liked; and
- Sets an example of safety attitude.
The fact is that many safety managers are very good at their management role, and are often better managers than leaders. At the same time, it is one of the responsibilities of upper management to honestly identify the best candidate for safety leader or safety champion, and focus their abilities where they are the best fit.
Related Aviation Safety Manager Articles
- What Is a Safety Manager in Aviation Safety Management Systems (SMS)?
- What Makes a Good Aviation Safety Manager?
- 2 Reasons Top Safety Managers Fail in Aviation SMS
Final Thought: Improving SMS Performance
Ultimately, what anyone in any safety program is most interested in is safety performance. Safety performance means:
- Performing well on audits;
- Developing and maintaining a Just Culture;
- Having extremely safe operational history; and
- Having a high capability for identifying and mitigating hazards in a timely manner.
Reaching this level or performance means having the right approach to aviation safety and having the right tools to organize and contain the structural components of your aviation SMS implementation. It’s a balance between bureaucracy, leadership, philosophy, and intimately understanding employees’ behaviors and the reasons for those behaviors.
Do you have an easy way to regularly audit your systems to help you monitor safety performance? Here is a low-cost auditing solution that may help:
Audit checklists are excellent resources to evaluate SMS performance. If you have an auditing solution, but need the checklists, these may be just what you are looking for:
Published December 2019. Last updated in May 2021.
Munich Airport Apron Image by Ashwin Chandrasekaran on flickr