Getting (Back) to the Basics of Aviation SMS
It’s easy to get absorbed in the gritty details of complex systems – this is especially true of aviation safety management systems (SMS).
For newcomers to the world of aviation SMS, it can seem overwhelming and daunting. For veterans, it’s easy to forget the core values.
For newcomers and veterans alike, reviewing the core principles of SMS can be refreshing:
- Why does SMS work?
- How does it work?
- What are the basic aviation SMS principles?
One thing that is kind of neat about aviation SMS is that its progress has been largely a natural one. Just as successful animals are the ones that adapt and survive by being aware of the danger and dealing with it competently when they have to, aviation SMS has also improved over the years through the same natural process.
Let’s see which values all safety programs carry with them as they traverse through the evolution of aviation SMS.
Have You Read
- History of Aviation SMS and Four Pillars - with Free Tools
- Why Should We Implement Aviation SMS?
- Let’s Talk Human Factors - Origin of Dirty Dozen
1 – Safety Management Systems Improve Safety through Awareness
One thing that sets aviation SMS apart from any safety system in history is its organized approach to raising safety awareness. Safety awareness is a general term that applies to areas such as:
- Awareness of the importance of safety
- Awareness of hazard safety data about an organization’s hazards, risks, and risk controls
- Awareness of effective methods of identifying hazards and reporting safety concerns
- Awareness of how to deal with safety issues using a repeatable, well-defined, and documented risk management strategy
- Awareness of management's commitment and active participation in the SMS
- Awareness by employees of protections afforded to them for self-reporting errors and accidents
In so many words, aviation safety management is tasked with constantly evaluating the safety environment and understanding how their operations interact with the environment, both for better and worse. It is this constant, systematic, and organization-wide effort towards continually evaluating (i.e. awareness) safety that has made SMS so effective at risk management.
And importantly, this effort is backed by logged safety data, giving SMS implementations a precedent of safety.
2 – Key SMS Processes
Five key processes are the backbone of every aviation SMS risk management process:
- Hazard identification – a method for being aware of and identifying safety hazards for an organization;
- Issue reporting – when safety occurrences happen, individuals who were involved report the issue and its details for the process of logging safety data and pushing this issue through the SMS' risk management process;
- Risk management – a process in which management goes through initial mitigating actions, analyzing and assessing risks, reviewing affected systems, conducting root cause analysis, reviewing identified hazards, associated risks, and risk controls to reduce risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP).
- Performance analysis – these are tools for analyzing safety data over time, giving the organization a detailed look at which safety goals and objectives are and aren’t being achieved; and
- Safety Assurance – is management’s commitment put into action for the ongoing support and continuous improvement of the organization’s safety performance.
The above five points highlight the main flow and functionality of an SMS's risk management process. Identify → report → manage → review → learn.
Related Aviation Risk Management Articles
- What Is Reactive Risk Management (Why It’s Essential for Aviation SMS)
- How to Practice Reactive, Proactive, and Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- Going from Reactive to Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
3 – Roles in Aviation SMS
Aviation safety management system's history has been a top-down approach to safety. What this means, in theory, is that safety decisions are made and overseen by management, and then passed down to employees to put into practice.
The ideological structure of such roles looks like this:
- Senior management – responsible for establishing SMS and allocating resources for support and maintenance of effective SMS;
- Process owners and safety management team – responsible for hazard identification, safety risk assessments, risk acceptance, implementing, maintaining and promoting the SMS, managing safety issues, preparing SMS performance monitoring reports for senior management, and adhering to SMS compliance processes; and
- Employees – responsible for identifying and reporting hazards.
It is equally important to note that while in theory SMS is top-down, the actual practice of effective SMS is more reciprocal. All three areas rely equally on each other to be effective in mitigating risk. Like a three-legged stool, if any of the three areas fails to live up to its responsibilities, the entire system will be debilitated.
4 – Best Qualities in Effective SMS
One could write a book on this topic – and indeed the “best qualities” are constantly at the forefront of modern aviation SMS literature. So to keep it short, in general, any seasoned aviation safety manager would probably agree on these three things:
- Involvement of the entire organization – especially front-line employees – as an SMS cannot be effective without high levels of involvement;
- Adaptable to all of the various changes aviation SMS go through, such as changes in regulation, technology, and the organization; and
- Compliant aviation SMS demonstrates a commitment to national/international safety goals, an ability to meet certain safety criteria, and ensure at the very least, a capable level of safety risk management.
Of course, how each of the above bullet points manifests will differ in each organization based on that organization’s unique needs, organizational, goals and objectives.
Related Aviation Safety Goals and Objectives Articles
- How to Shape Your Corporate Vision with Aviation Safety Goals and Objectives
- How to Create Safety Objectives in Aviation SMS with Examples
- 3 Goal-Setting Tips Using Aviation Key Performance Indicators - with Free KPI Resources
5 – What SMS Isn’t
There are a couple of things to point out that an aviation SMS is not, that can sometimes get muddled or confused:
- Quality Management System (QMS) – while SMS is similar to QMS aspects, and can be seen as a part of a larger QMS, they are not the same thing. SMS focuses exclusively on safety, while QMS focuses on the quality (i.e. production, customers, etc.) of the entire organization;
- A department – while an organization may have individuals specifically a part of a safety team, SMS is built into the fabric of the aviation industry;
- A guarantee of safety – an SMS is meant to be used as a safety tool to aid employees' ability to practice safety, and for management to refine system processes to be as safe as practical, not to eliminate hazards altogether.
Final Thought: Stick to the Basics
The complexity and sheer scope of what aviation SMS implementations are, and attempt to accomplish, will overwhelm you at some point. Being overwhelmed can appear in many forms:
- Burn out
A good rule of thumb, when such symptoms start to appear, is to get back to the basics. Keep in mind the essential goals of SMS. By implementing and maintaining an aviation SMS, your organization will provide a higher quality product or service. Furthermore, SMS risk management processes will make your company more competitive as you refine operational processes.
SMS can be as simple as
- grudging active conformance; or
- passive conformance (paper SMS in areas with poor oversight).
The other alternative is to adapt SMS risk management processes throughout the entire organization. There is an opportunity to improve business processes while you are implementing your SMS. This is perhaps the most important thing to understand about SMS. While it may be a regulatory requirement for most aviation service providers, you can still use it as a gift in disguise.
With the advent of formal SMS, operators have been given a gift. Before SMS, most operators lacked the risk management processes to continually improve operations. With SMS, every operator will have the tools. What will you do with the tools?
Are you implementing an SMS? Where are you at? Do you know? How do you promote your SMS?
Here is a useful hazard and risk quiz to give to employees to serve as a safety promotion tool.
Last updated in September 2023.