Aviation Safety Managers Battling Organizational Silos
Effective aviation safety management systems (SMS) are implemented throughout an entire organization, and not merely for flight ops and airside operations.
Unfortunately, there is a major problem with many safety cultures in the aviation industry. Safety is managed at the department level or the division level of many inefficient aviation companies.
Safety managers today are challenged with implementing an effective SMS, yet have to overcome the "silo mentality."
This article discusses why the silo mentality exists and how safety managers can work to break down silos to enhance the safety culture at their airline or airport.
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Does Your Company Have Silos?
Silos are present when certain divisions or departments refuse to share information or responsibilities with others at the same company. This attitude reduces:
- Efficiency in overall operations;
- System safety;
- Workplace satisfaction; and
- SMS effectiveness.
At many companies, silos exist that impede organizational effectiveness.
Silos are not always easy to detect by outsiders; however, safety managers that have worked at companies for longer than six months will be able to determine whether silos exist.
Only the smaller operators seem to be immune to silos, after all, small teams have fewer political games and have a better understanding of their interdependence. Silos tend to dampen safety cultures, but not always across the entire organization. Companies often have high-performing safety cultures within particular divisions while other divisions resist SMS participation.
Distinct safety cultures within a single organization become evident when one tracks SMS performance by divisions, such as:
- safety reporting metrics per user;
- safety meeting attendance;
- on-time safety task completion (corrective and preventive actions, assigned safety issues, assigned audit findings);
- SMS training completion rates; and
- response to safety communications.
These metrics are tracked and monitored by an SMS database. After all, companies with multiple divisions have budgets for SMS databases to monitor SMS performance. If you are still using spreadsheets and your company has more than 300 employees, I recommend an SMS database to be able to track safety performance by divisions. This will allow you to pinpoint organizational areas with substandard safety performance.
If you have spreadsheets, it is impossible to monitor safety performance at the employee level. This allows employees to hide in plain sight and ignore the SMS. This is a very common phenomenon in Southeast Asia. To combat employee apathy, we have clients that track employee safety performance. Reports can be rolled up to determine divisions within the company that have low employee participation. Corrective actions can be taken when these problems can be measured, identified and the root cause determined.
Related Aviation SMS Performance Monitoring Articles
- 4 Tips to Monitor Employee Safety Performance in Aviation SMS
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Silos Are Due to Management Conflicts
Safety managers often identify the source of management silos as:
- Immature department head behavior;
- Department heads afraid of losing control; or
- Ingrained attitudes of "we've always done it this way."
Most safety managers become frustrated with this silo phenomenon.
Silos adversely affect the mission safety managers have been employed to implement, namely the aviation SMS, which requires a unified effort by the entire organization.
Many safety managers have simply resigned themselves to accepting their fate.
For safety managers who have refused to accept the status quo and are determined to make a difference, they must start at the top! They must first identify the problem and then challenge upper management to assume leadership.
Upper management must then arrive at long-term, organization-wide changes that are:
- Achievable; and
Before you go to management with a "hunch," try to collect some metrics to back up your claims. Not every argument needs to be supported by metrics, but by examples, such as "On Monday, Sept 4th, Joe Line Mechanic told me he didn't have to report a close call because the shift supervisor said it would just be more paperwork and hurt their division's safety record."
A prepared safety manager with hard, documented facts has more credibility in demonstrating a silo mentality.
Safety Manager's Vision Must Be Shared With Management
Aviation safety managers have a job to do: implement an organization-wide SMS for the accountable executive.
Smaller organizations with fewer than 100 employees don't need a safety manager in each division or department. One safety manager will suffice; however, a representative from each division should be a part of the safety committee. Having a safety manager in each department is not effective unless you are:
- Operating in multiple regions; or
- An operator with more than two hundred employees (based on empirical evidence).
Aviation safety managers have a job to do: implement an organization-wide SMS. This requires safety managers to have visible and frequent access to upper management. By visible, we mean that all employees understand that the safety manager has top management support.
Aviation safety managers have a job to do: implement an organization-wide SMS. This is not a department-wide SMS but an organization-wide SMS. All departments must participate in the SMS.
Safety managers must often convince multiple managers that a unified "team approach" is required. Many airlines and airports are governed by multiple managers or "boards of directors." These managers must first be convinced that a "departmental approach to an SMS implementation is not sustainable." Then these upper-level managers must exert their leadership to ensure these silos are broken down.
Related Aviation Safety Manager Articles
- Tips to Increase Aviation SMS Budgets - for Safety Managers
- How Safety Managers Hurt Their Aviation Hazard Reporting Processes
- Hardest Challenges of Aviation Safety Managers in Modern Aviation SMS
Why SMS Implementations Fail in Organizational Silos
If you are not an aviation safety manager, you don't understand all the work that is required to comply with an ICAO compliant aviation SMS. If you don't understand what is required and you want a taste, look at the ICAO requirements for SMS Documentation. Imagine each department having to duplicate this work. The entire organization must work together.
Departmental silos cannot comply with the ICAO requirements for safety communication. These requirements specifically state that safety communication must flow throughout the entire organization. This is impossible when your airline or airport has silos. It is more efficient and economical when safety initiatives are managed by a safety department and not by a safety manager within a department.
Safety Managers Must Prepare Their Vision
As a safety manager, you cannot simply tell management that you need to break down the silos in order to affect your SMS. I recommend that you prepare your vision and story before approaching these managers.
Tell them the status quo: Aviation SMS is either required or soon will be required for all aviation service providers. Aviation SMS must be implemented at the organizational level and require considerable amounts of documentation and continuous safety promotion activities.
Tell them the problem: Our airline or airport has historically operated using autonomous departments (or divisions). Safety concerns are commonly dealt with at the department level.
This silo organizational approach is:
- Inefficient in the use of manpower;
- Costs more to our organization;
- Less safe;
- Is impossible to sustain within a long-term SMS;
- Certain to cost us more money complying with aviation SMS audits; and
- Certainly unsustainable to pass aviation SMS audits in the long term.
Finally, tell them the plan: Our vision is to implement an aviation SMS in order to realize the business benefits that other organizations enjoy from successfully implemented SMS. These benefits include:
- Stability, safety, and customer support – customers are aware our operations are safer than others;
- Possible insurance premium reductions by demonstrating better risk management;
- Improved employee morale – potentially lowering staff turnover and reduced training costs; and
- Documented evidence of a successfully implemented SMS in the event of an incident or accident.
We recommend that you stress business benefits over safety benefits. Sadly, but true, safety benefits fall on deaf ears when speaking to upper-level managers. Upper-level managers are focused on the bottom line and most believe the "system is already operating within appropriately safe margins."
You may also sprinkle in some financial benefits but don't lay it on too heavily. I become suspicious of safety professionals who state the obvious financial advantages of SMS as if I couldn't figure them out myself. I also don't like it when safety professionals also state that "it only takes one accident to put you out of business." I believe managers already know this and beating the "doom and gloom" angle only causes managers to raise walls of resistance.
Related Articles on Aviation SMS Benefits
- Safety Benefits of Aviation SMS
- 43 Benefits of Aviation Safety Management Systems (Proven)
- How SMS Benefits Airport Management
Final Thoughts on Safety Manager's Challenges to Silos
Aviation SMS implementations require considerable time. Often three to five years is required to fully implement an SMS for even smaller operators of 100 employees or so. More time will be required when there are silos that refuse to come down.
Successful aviation SMS implementation is impossible in airlines and airports that are departmentally isolated. You will not continue to pass audits and these silos jeopardize aviation safety. Safety managers are powerless to break down these silos until they gain the support of top management.
Many would argue that the task of breaking down these silos belongs to upper management. Unfortunately, in the real world, upper management may not see these silos as a problem and this problem must be dropped into their lap before they see it.
Before you dump this steaming pile of "I don't want to think about it" into management's lap, make sure you prepare a solution. Good safety managers don't just bring problems, but they also bring solutions.
SMS are more easily managed when safety managers have access to best-of-class aviation SMS tools that can be shared by all departments in the airline or airport. Good tools reduce resistance to your SMS and improve the safety culture.
If your SMS database does not allow secure access by all divisions, then you may want to switch to a better, more complete SMS database. Please watch these videos to see how an SMS database will benefit your organization.
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Last updated January 2024.