Too Complex for One Person
The long and short of is this: don’t fool yourself. You’re just one person. One component in the clock that makes your aviation safety management system (SMS) tick.
Don’t get me wrong, as an aviation safety manager, inspector, executive, etc. you may be central in keeping the word safety in your SMS program. The basic fact remains that the weight and complexity inherent in all SMS programs – even small programs – are quickly outstripping anyone’s ability to be in the know of everything.
The hard fact is that we live in a world increasingly bent on specialization, where one component is ignorant of the system as a whole.
And when I say the world, I mean both internal and external factors such as:
- Weight of regulation
- The weight of compliance policies and procedures
- More complex interactions inside an organization in the push towards adaptability
- Keeping up with changes (productivity) vs mitigating risk (safety)
The key word here is complexity, which entails that if any one person is too central to a safety program, it’s actually a risk for two basic reasons:
- It invites bottlenecking
- It creates a strong dependency on one or a few individuals
In the past, in less complex internal and external environments, with fewer data passing through an organization, organizations didn’t have the pitfalls that exist today – such as the two bullet points above. This leads me to say:
Traditional Understanding of SMS No Longer Applies
It seems as though the aviation safety industry is approaching critical mass in terms of safety. We live in the safest aviation industry ever. Accidents are lower than they ever have been, despite record numbers of flights every year.
Much of this we can owe to the adoption and integration of safety systems into aviation organizations, as well as increases in technologies.
And I’m sure that you will agree with me when I say that in the last 20 years, everything has changed. Let me make a bold statement:
We understand aviation SMS programs as being top-down. They are commonly reported as being so. In the past, this certainly may have been true. But as organizations move towards increasing complexity, their internal structure becomes more web-like than hierarchical, where the overall “macro” level of safety of an organization is more dependent on the “micro” level decisions and interactions of individuals in that organization.
So in terms of hierarchy, it’s a two-way connection:
- Management and safety managers make certain decisions that reverberate throughout an organization
- Employees of the organization make thousands of “micro” level decisions every day that come to be a larger, organizational practice, and which management once again responds two with more decisions
Another way to think about it is cyclical. If your immediate response is that the above-described relationship is still top-down because management is making the decisions, then I would call that:
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We can’t ignore that managers will make decisions in reaction to their environment. That is to say, employees respond to management who responds to employees, and so on.
But then, of course, we have all of the external pressures which makes the internal workings even more complex:
- Federal regulations
- Changing technologies
- Personal lives of an organization’s employees
Organizations as a whole will have to cope with external factors. Management of an airline will have to cope with changing regulations just as employees will.
What ideologically is a top-down process, is in actuality now itself a dependency. Yes, I said it.
- Strictly top-down processes invite bottlenecking and dependencies
- It propagates a mindset that only a few are “responsible” for the complexity of a safety program
- It suppresses initiative of individuals
Like I said, we are talking about modern, and probably larger organizations. But I think we are also increasingly talking about the future of safety programs as well. Another way of looking at it is a reassessment of the responsibilities of management in aviation SMS.
A Good Mindset to Have for SMS Programs
As I alluded to earlier, modern and complex organizations function more like an interconnected web marked by diversity and interdependence (rather than dependence). Both diversity and interdependence are wonderful segues into developing a safety reporting culture.
And I’m not talking ideologically here, I’m saying that is the trend in actual practice and emerging philosophy about human factors, etc. And it is of course at odds with the protective structure – regulation, compliance, inspection – which purports to understand exactly how a system should work, and fixes any gaps by pressing for more “compliant” practices.
To me, the presumption that Compliance is the highest form of safety is the type of top-down danger that I spoke of earlier. I think a better mindset for inspectors, managers, and auditors to have would be towards seeking an understanding of various systems, and adapting both with and responsive to organizational shifts as a whole.
Final Thought: Argument for Adaptability in Aviation SMS Programs
So what I’m really saying is that I, in addition to emergency system safety philosophies, am identifying an increasing trend towards complexity – complexity that seems very much at odds with traditional top-down SMS philosophies.
Therefore to continue this unprecedented level of safety, organizations will have to continue to adapt by learning a new repertoire of ideology, language, and countermeasures for understanding and coping with changes.
It’s not to say that the top-down methodology still doesn’t have a strong place in SMS programs, but only to say that strictly reliance on that structure is:
- At odds with high-reliability organizational practices
- At odds with resilience engineering
- And are how organizations “drift into failure.”
Most safety managers have developed procedures to manage reported issues and identified hazards. These procedures require review. Here is a good resource to review your risk management procedures.
Last updated in October 2023.