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Advanced Aviation SMS: Avoid Leaving Money Behind - Implementation Styles

Posted by Christopher Howell on Mar 17, 2021 6:15:00 AM Find me on:

Powerful Aviation SMS When Implemented Properly

Advanced Aviation SMS: Avoid Leaving Money Behind - Implementation Styles

Aviation safety management systems (SMS) are not simply regulatory requirements but a "new way of doing business."

"Yeah, we've all heard these ambiguous praises before," I hear you saying.

  • What else is new?
  • Where is the proof?
  • Why aren't we seeing the benefits? or
  • Only large companies with high volumes benefit.

Most operators with fewer than 500 employees will never financially benefit from their implemented aviation SMS frameworks. But this is not the fault of the SMS architecture. There is hope!

Aviation SMS is powerful, and unlike pure "system safety," SMS contains important processes contributing to sustained business success. These common-sense business concepts extend way beyond safety. Military types with system safety backgrounds tend to ignore a couple of these "important processes," thereby restricting these available opportunities.

The completeness of aviation SMS architecture marvels most analytical engineers' minds. I frequently see the "ah-ha" moment as bureaucratic engineers gain a complete, yet rudimentary understanding of the entire system, encompassing all four pillars.

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In this article, we'll discuss three or more implementation styles that have crippled aviation SMS around the world, in every country! Understanding these styles may assist readers in understanding the origin of their implemented SMS and how they can most easily restructure their SMS to regularly return opportunities brimming with financial benefits.

Aviation SMS is much more than system safety.

Aviation SMS includes people!

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Implementation Styles Costing Operators Money

Advanced Aviation SMS is business focused.

We are not here to teach you the basic steps to implement aviation SMS, otherwise, I suggest reviewing some of the widely available implementation resources you will find scattered in these educational blog articles.

When safety teams implement formal aviation SMS, they involuntarily focus on:

  • safety policy;
  • safety duties and responsibilities;
  • safety processes;
  • safety hazards; and
  • reducing safety risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP).

As expected, safety teams purposely focus on regulatory and contractual SMS requirements, but they could easily get more from their investments. How? Change the focus from safety to safety through quality. When one considers the long-term strategic business mission, "safety through quality" makes much more sense than "spend on safety and expect nothing."

I share these insights so you can amend your existing safety policies.

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Additional Implementation Styles With Unique Challenges

Besides the quality vs safety-centric focus on the initial SMS implementation, one can consider at least three other implementation styles that should be recognized before rewriting your safety policy. This list is not inclusive, but three separate implementation styles that come to mind are:

  1. Colonial SMS implementation;
  2. Groupthink SMS implementation; and
  3. Right-size SMS implementation.

Each of these implementation strategies relied upon a focused mindset during implementation. Each of these styles was effective in specific circumstances. They satisfied requirements based on often-shifting and ill-defined expectations. One thing to remember, safety cultures are dependent on these strategies.

You may intuitively believe that the "right-size" SMS implementation is the preferred choice. Don't be surprised to learn that there are problems with the "right-sized SMS implementation" that is stifling your abilities to maximize the utility of your SMS' innate risk management system.

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Where Did Your Safety Policy Come From?

Plane take off

Next, we will explore the above three common implementation styles that limit their own success. Your SMS implementation was probably based on one of these styles. Recognizing the style will shed insights into possible mitigation strategies in order to fully benefit from the SMS implementation.

For now, we need to recognize that

  1. An aviation SMS can generate visible financial returns for most companies;
  2. Accountable executives must be approached before tweaking your SMS to pursue financial objectives;
  3. Top management support is critical when pursuing financial objectives;
  4. Strict "safety-focused" SMS are self-limiting; and
  5. Safety policy is a prime vehicle for accountable executives to share their vision.


  • How do you plan to change your safety policy?
  • Where did your safety policy come from?

An aviation SMS is very powerful and is not just for safety. Many young safety professionals are realizing this every day.

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What Are Colonial SMS Implementations?

When I think of colonial SMS implementations, there are both positive and negative implications. Colonial SMS implementation strategies conjure two possible viewpoints:

  1. SMS implementation style the following country with most expatriates influencing safety initiatives; or
  2. Original SMS strategy never reviewed/restructured since achieving regulatory compliance.

Let us first address colonial SMS implementations performed by expatriates. In Asia and the Middle East, we commonly see aviation SMS implemented by expats trained in their native countries. Safety professionals from the UK and Canada appear to be the most common expats in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Expats bring considerable education and experience as they implement aviation SMS in host countries.

Expats benefit global aerospace safety! These are our global safety ambassadors spreading technologies and shaping business cultures.

Expats naturally bring predominant philosophies and data management strategies employed in the expats' home countries. In most cases, having experts from a foreign nation is an advantage to operators in developing countries lacking qualified safety professionals.

In the second instance of "colonial SMS," I recall the many SMS that was hurriedly cobbled together to satisfy the "race to SMS compliance." Once SMS compliance had been assured, management put the SMS on "auto-pilot" and returned to "routine business operations," which equates to:

  • making more money; and
  • putting out the "fire of the week."

Consequently, once SMS implementation activities fade from management's focal point, little energy is expended into optimizing the SMS to achieve the promised financial benefits.

Colonial SMS implementations possess a limited "shelf life." Both require review and a change of scope. Both implementation styles are "mission-focused," thereby, doing the bare minimum to satisfy SMS requirements and "let's fly!"

"Engineered system safety" is a well-known concept in the first instance of these "colonial SMS implementations." These implementations ignore sustained safety culture development, or at best, you will see feeble, token efforts to demonstrate "safety promotion."

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What Are Groupthink SMS Implementations?

In organizational psychology, groupthink is an unhealthy practice in business dynamics where managers quickly reach a consensus without critically evaluating alternatives. There are both positive and negative effects stemming from groupthink.

Groupthink can be witnessed in the business environment where managers "go along to get along." Individuals sacrifice creativity while benefitting from the protection of the group. Individual responsibility for successful business initiatives is pushed to the group. Consequently, rewards are not equitably distributed to high performers.

Under-performing managers can easily hide their lackluster performance by encouraging groupthink behaviors.

There are at least two problematic cases of groupthink that stand out in my years of working on SMS implementations:

  • FRAT is an SMS, we need nothing more; and
  • Bowtie requirement for proactive hazard analysis.
Airport crew

Before I begin, I must say that FRAT is not a complete SMS. Nor is FRAT required for regulatory-compliant SMS implementations. Many corporate flight departments incorrectly assumed that FRAT is an SMS because of unscrupulous SMS database vendors trying to seize market share. Luckily, I can speak from an Insider's perspective regarding this matter.

In 2009, SMS Pro created the first electronic, Web-based flight risk assessment tool (FRAT). Our FRAT was designed as a secondary, supplemental risk management tool based on the FAA's paper-based FRAT.

Within six months, SMS Pro competitors started adding FRAT to their systems and marketed FRAT as the cornerstone of their SMS initiatives. I could call out names, but this will not improve safety. These competitors spent considerable sums on visually impactful Web marketing to convince corporate flight departments that FRATs will make them safe and satisfy requirements.

These FRAT-dependent SMS implementations are easy to spot and they are the result of groupthink. Managers allow someone else to do their critical thinking for them. Consequently, if you have an FRAT-dependent SMS, I recommend that you conduct a gap analysis before you change your SMS implementation to attract and capture opportunities. Why? Because your SMS was implemented based on false presumptions. I'm willing to bet that there are many other deficiencies in your SMS.

How would I know this? I work with four FRAT-dependent operators who focus on flight operations and not "organization-wide operations." An SMS was not designed just for pilots.

Another example of SMS groupthink comes from safety manager reports claiming they need bowtie features to satisfy SMS requirements. The safety professionals in this group are always servicing the petroleum industry where the Bowtie analysis is

  • accepted;
  • expected; and
  • demonstrates proactive hazard management.

To clarify, Bowtie is a great tool and can demonstrate both:

  • commitment to safety; and
  • safety management sophistication.

However, Bowtie is not required for a regulatory-compliant SMS. Other tools can add even more value than the bowtie. The Bowtie is a tool and not an SMS. Groupthink occurs when managers incorrectly believe that they must be regularly churning out Bowtie diagrams to demonstrate compliance. Sorry, for the loss of time and money, guys.

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What Are Right-Sized SMS Implementations?

In aviation SMS literature and guidance materials, one occasionally stumbles upon the logical sounding "Right-Sized SMS." This aptly named implementation strategy implies that organizations' level of SMS sophistication will be based on:

  • organization size;
  • complexity; and I'll thrown in
  • operating theater/environment.

In theory and practice, a right-sized SMS analyzes the requirements and then performs the bare minimum to achieve the objective. Good business sense dictates that efficient managers implement and maintain at a bare minimum the lowest standard that regulatory agencies and their clients permit. This is the objective.

Good business sense commands managers to achieve aviation SMS objectives at the lowest cost.

To arrive at the lowest cost, one does not allow "scope creep" into the project. Achieve the objective.

Do you see limited results coming from the shortsightedness of this logical, business-style approach? An effective SMS requires a philosophical change to "the way we do business," if I may steal a phrase from early SMS literature.

Good business drives managers to achieve objectives at the lowest cost.

Consequently, I don't believe that a "right-sized SMS" enjoys a sincere commitment to all four SMS pillars and their respective elements. Therefore, I also suggest a thorough, honest gap analysis for right-sized implementations. In short, you may be able to pass an audit, but those auditors are not business analysts and seldom SMS subject matter experts.

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Reviewing SMS Implementations Before Policy Changes

Benefits about aviation safety database

There is no magic bullet to make money from your SMS. Aviation SMS are systems!

As systems, each of the four SMS pillars maintains equal importance toward SMS success. Furthermore, you cannot neglect any of the SMS elements. When organizations fail to understand the systems that they are charged to implement, they leave money on the table. If you have an active, performing SMS today, I'm delighted. But I'm certain you are still leaving money on the table.

An SMS is incredibly powerful!

An SMS becomes an invaluable strategic management tool.

Do you see it? If not, I'm here to show you how. This is not basic SMS, but Advanced SMS. This is where I demonstrate industry follies and provide solutions to capitalize on this "regulatory burden" that consumes industry resources without visibly contributing to the bottom line.

SMS should contribute to the bottom line. If not, you are doing it wrong.

Why do I suggest that you review your SMS implementations before amending your safety policy to reflect "safety through quality?"

First, let's ask ourselves, what was our aviation SMS implementation style?

  1. Colonial;
  2. Groupthink; or
  3. Right-size.

Each one of these styles possesses a separate "cultural tone" that was shaped at the time the aviation SMS was implemented. Is this the tone you wish to carry forward? Are we doing the bare minimum? Or are we earnestly striving for continuous improvement in our products and services?

When we strive to make our products and services better by repeatedly analyzing possible anomalies in our processes, we hope to benefit from reduced losses and improved efficiencies. But there is much, much more value that can be captured.

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Final Thoughts on Policy Change

The purpose of this Advanced Aviation SMS blog article is to cause you to think.

Up to this point, we have realized:

  • An aviation SMS can realize financial benefits;
  • Accountable managers are responsible for the SMS and must be alerted before mining the SMS for profits;
  • Senior managers must champion "opportunity-seeking" cultures based on continuous improvement;
  • Safety policy drives culture;
  • Focus on safety and you only get safety;
  • Focus on safety through quality and you get continuous improvement and opportunities;
  • Your implementation history must be examined to identify obstacles;
  • Safety policy must focus on quality stemming from proactive cultures.

Are you ready to create a safety policy that resonates with your employees?

Remember to ask yourself when you are drafting your safety policy: what is in it for the employees? How do they benefit? When you show them how they benefit, there will naturally be less resistance.

SMS is Business.

Effective SMS requires a healthy culture.

Focus on safety, and you only get safety!

If It's Not Easy, It Won't Last

Science and technology increase efficiencies. If you wish to benefit from an SMS, you will need science and technology. Otherwise, I recommend that you merely "check the box." Don't waste your time doing it manually, otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a loss.

If you are tired of wasting time and money on a sinkhole without a bottom, consider automating your SMS to a built-for-purpose aviation SMS database. This is automation with considerable sophistication to turn your safety-centric SMS into a safety-quality-centric SMS.

Learn how you can benefit today!

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Last updated in April 2024.

Topics: Aviation SMS Implementation, 1-Safety Policy

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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