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How to Make Your Aviation SMS Implementation Adaptable

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jun 5, 2019 6:00:00 AM

A Hot Word in Aviation SMS?

How to Make Your Aviation SMS Implementation Adaptable

As airlines and the aviation industry, in general, continue to eclipse safety records year by year, a nagging question begins to crop up with increasing vigor:

To what end?

The thought of endless safety improvement is daunting for any aviation safety manager. Endless improvement is totally unrealistic, though it often feels like the pressure from up top is to strive for just that – an impossible goal.

New technologies will emerge in the aviation industry with increased safety potential, but will also drag along a closet of skeletons that the aviation safety management system (SMS) will have to deal with. People will always be people. And change will never cease, which leaves room for aviation SMS implementations to continually improve operational safety.

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The basic fact is there will always be risks. There will always be hazards. And problems will always arise. The issue should not be about improving safety as in the realm of tabulated data, but of improving “adaptability.”

There’s that word – adaptable. An up-and-coming buzzword, a new hot topic. And one that makes a lot of sense. The focus on adaptability admits a couple of important things:

  • Endless safety improvement is not a viable goal
  • SMS implementations and our technologically driven world are increasingly complex
  • “Maintenance” of safety will soon eclipse the importance of “improving” safety

The third bullet is a sobering idea, and it changes the mindset of how individuals – management, employees, auditors, etc. – approach aviation SMS implementations.

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Know There Is Way More Than Data Performance Monitoring

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First and foremost, I love data. Aviation safety trending charts, key performance indicators, graphs, and other SMS tools shed some invaluable light on the effectiveness of SMS implementation. They’re extremely gratifying because ostensibly they show you rather conspicuously

  • How things are/aren’t improving
  • Relationship between issues
  • And so on

If you cannot measure SMS performance, you cannot monitor SMS performance. Plain and simple. Following this mindset, there is a tendency for safety managers to want to track everything that may be remotely useful in future predictive risk management activities.

Aviation safety statistics are incredibly easy to rely on completely – which is not always a good thing. There are so many other factors that increasingly play more important roles in safety performance, and data is just one tool. In so many ways, collected SMS data is simply a “theoretical model” of an SMS' performance.

SMS implementations that adapt well to changes, sudden-developing safety issues, or events, tend to have three things in common:

  • Focus on safety over production
  • Many types of measurements for an aviation SMS' effectiveness (such as average employee age/experience/tenure, informal assessment of relationships between people, departments, management, etc.)
  • Employees that have a high latitude of authority to make decisions (based on safety)

These three things touch on the 3 tiers of an organization: the mindset of the organization as a whole, management level of organization assessment, and front-line employees’ ability to act.

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Accepts That Unpredictability Arises From Perfectly Rational Reasons

Perhaps most importantly, focusing on adaptability means accepting that issues will arise simply because they always will – sometimes because of mistakes and sometimes because of perfectly rational decisions.

Accepting such is why organizations that adapt well are bent on:

  • Absorbing vs eliminating

Unfortunately, risk elimination is still a widely disseminated goal in the aviation industry: the focus on theoretical performance. Such a goal suggests that SMS implementations need protection from the unpredictable, random elements that we face every day.

That’s paradoxical at best.

Moreover, randomness is often a reverberation of perfectly reasonable, normal actions. Accepting unpredictable elements without wasting energy trying to account for them by boxing them into a procedure leaves other opportunities to focus energy. For example, cultivate awareness and coping mechanisms for individuals so that when erratic elements do come into play, they can identify hazards and act quickly.

Prepare the individual, not the exact situation.

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Is Comfortable With Asymptomatic Improvement

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Of course, what I have slowly been getting at is not exactly comfortable because, in so many ways, SMS effectiveness will increasingly become asymptomatic as conventional means of assessing SMS implementations begin to plateau.

For example, consider data and graphs. We can reasonably assume there is a safety threshold. As organizations approach such a threshold, their available “data” will begin to show only incremental improvements.

But that doesn’t mean the aviation SMS isn’t improving. It simply means the traditional “symptoms” of improvement cannot be measured traditionally. Or at all.

How do you measure in any concrete, symptomatic way:

  • Increases in front-line workers' ability to work together?
  • A positive increase in functioning complexity of a system?
  • Trust between management and employees?
  • Diminishing of dependencies (i.e. on one person)?

The list goes on in all the small ways that, when improvement happens, may not show themselves in ways our current models are able to account for. Hence, "asymptomatic". However, such improvements will stand the test of time because they are improvements in adaptability.

It goes full circle to earlier when I mentioned finding more creative ways of assessing SMS implementations.

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Keeps the Safety Discussion Going

This doesn’t have to be taken literally. Rather, a constant exploration into an aviation SMS to analyze and monitor things such as the following can keep the “discussion” alive and interesting:

  • How the system functions in actuality vs. on paper
  • How relationships between various parts of the system function together
  • How various parts respond, cope, and or absorb breakdowns

The important questions start with “how” because like a living being, complex systems – and therefore adaptable systems – are always changing. “How” questions will change as the system changes.

In a way, this mindset is similar to a constant effort to “improve safety,” except that instead of focusing on increased ability to account for risk, the focus here is on understanding the system.

I for one, find the latter a less frustrating endeavor.

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Final Thought: Getting There

The road to adaptability begins with aligning your safety goals and objectives to the principles that allow your aviation SMS to be:

  • Free flowing with safety information
  • Non-punitive
  • Safety vs production driven
  • Focused on adjusting vs deflecting issues
  • Performance vs. prescriptive based

There are no quick answers, and value systems will naturally vary according to each organization. But forming principles in these areas and working towards them at all costs as well as possible within financial resources/pressures, is the quickest route to having an adaptable aviation safety management system.

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Last updated March 2024.

Topics: 2-Safety Risk Management

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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