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How to Improve Aviation SMS Performance Monitoring Activities

Posted by Christopher Howell on May 11, 2021 6:00:00 AM Find me on:

Safety Performance Monitoring in Aviation SMS

How to Improve Aviation SMS Performance Monitoring Activities

Most safety professionals have a common-sense perception about how to monitor the safety performance of their aviation safety management system (SMS). After all, isn't safety performance monitoring just a fancy phrase for setting goals and tracking them?

Too often, aviation safety professionals are expected to perform "miracles" with their aviation SMS, but they are not provided realistic tools or training on how to achieve proper safety performance objectives.

In this article, we'll discuss monitoring employee safety performance and some observations that focus on the misplaced burden of monitoring organizational safety performance.

Too often, this burden is placed solely on the shoulders of aviation safety professionals.

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Safety Is Your Problem, Safety Manager

Too often, we see aviation service providers with a sick mindset toward basic aviation safety principles. This mindset may be something familiar to you.

Imagine... you are appointed as the safety manager. Other managers look to you to implement and sustain the aviation SMS at your company.

Does "(you pick the topic)" have to do with the SMS? Too bad, safety manager. That is your problem. Deal with it.

Time and again we see department heads with the attitude that if it smells of SMS, then let the safety manager do the task. "My hands are clean of this. Let me deal with my own problems."

This is not the proper mindset for a healthy safety culture. Your company may outwardly say that "safety is everybody's business," but in reality, safety is only for line-level employees and the appointed safety manager. Does your company work like this in reality? Do department heads inwardly harbor these beliefs?

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SMS Is Accountable Executive's Responsibility

Aviation service providers that don't take SMS seriously need to be educated that SMS is not the sole province of the safety manager. SMS implementation and monitoring the performance of the SMS is the responsibility of the Accountable Executive. When department heads are not completely on-board with the SMS, this is the result of potentially two reasons:

  1. Department heads have not been properly trained; or
  2. Accountable executive is not taking an active leadership role in monitoring SMS performance.

I may argue that some of the old-school managers have ingrained habits of "we've always done it this way," or "SMS is a fad that will soon pass." After a dozen years, I can say that SMS is here to stay and SMS is not a fad. Resistant department heads and other non-participating employees either need to get with the "SMS program" or leave the company. Otherwise, their negative attitudes are poisoning your safety culture.

Your accountable executive is also responsible for regularly reviewing organizational safety performance. Whenever shortcomings or substandard safety performance are detected, it is the accountable executive's responsibility to do whatever is necessary to correct these deficiencies.

In a nutshell, safety is not the safety manager's problem, it is the accountable executive's responsibility and this is not a responsibility that can be pushed onto another manager. Therefore, accountable executives must play an active role in

  • Safety meetings;
  • Hazard monitoring;
  • Safety communications (newsletters and safety messages); and
  • SMS performance monitoring.

We are not saying that the accountable executive must perform all these tasks single-handedly. Safety tasks can be delegated, but the accountable executive must always remain responsible.

The point I'm trying to make is that safety performance monitoring can be performed by safety teams, but oversight must be provided by the accountable executive. Furthermore, the accountable executive must be made aware of any resistance to the SMS. As a safety manager, you may wish to try an informal approach to resistant employees, but a best practice is to document your actions thoroughly. What did you do? What did each party say? Was there any agreement to bring the resistant behavior to an end?

If all else fails, and the resistant employee no longer responds to your requests to stop subverting the SMS, you will have documentation to state your case to the manager ultimately responsible for the SMS, your accountable executive. Allowing resistant employees to poison others is a recipe for an underperforming safety culture.

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Not All Aviation Service Providers Have Toxic Safety Cultures

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Over the past two years, I've been working with many more aviation service providers with healthy attitudes toward their safety culture. What I like to hear is "We want a participatory safety program where the safety manager is not doing all the work."

Accountable executives recognize that if they place all their trust in the safety manager to sustain their SMS implementation, their SMS will fail as soon as the safety manager "gets hit by the bus," which is the polite term for "going to work for your competitor" or retiring.

There also appears to be another trend developing for smaller aviation service providers with fewer than 300 employees. What I'm seeing is that accountable executives don't want to rely on safety teams for SMS performance metrics. Accountable executives don't want to be held hostage and are made to wait when they wish to take an objective view of SMS performance.

These are proactive accountable executives. From their stories, they are frustrated when they have to wait for SMS performance reports or they are not able to monitor the progress of high-risk safety issues that have been reported into the safety reporting system. What I'm also seeing from these executives is that they are holding their senior leadership accountable for SMS participation. These are repeating themes I'm seeing from both Canada and Australia.

Getting Dept Heads to Actively Participate in Aviation SMS

Safety managers get the reasoning behind the need for SMS. The number one purpose of the SMS is to stop "The Accident." Safety managers become frustrated when they see reluctance from other operational department heads to participate in the SMS. Well, safety manager, I have an idea worth sharing.

Among the reasons that department heads do not participate in the aviation SMS is that they:

  • May not know-how; or
  • Don't have the tools to make a difference in the SMS; or
  • Don't have tools that directly influence their operational decision-making processes.

For the first reason, this is obviously a training issue. This is easy to fix and most reputable aviation SMS training courses should discuss this. However, a common problem is that the audience who should be getting this valuable message at formal SMS training courses may not be "strong" enough in the organization to carry the message back home.

When safety managers go to SMS training courses, they are learning SMS fundamentals and topics focusing on safety management responsibilities. However, there are also executive-level SMS training courses, and these courses are sure to approach the topic of participatory SMS processes. Without a doubt, many accountable executives are not bringing the message home. This is an opportunity for improvement.

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Tools for Safety Performance Monitoring in SMS

Aviation Safety Solutions must offer user-friendly tools to monitor safety performance

If you are familiar with aviation SMS, you are certainly familiar with the Safety Assurance component (or pillar) of ICAO-compliant SMS. There are many tools to monitor the performance of aviation SMS implementations, including

  • Risk analysis charts and graphs;
  • Trending charts;
  • Auditing tools;
  • Safety dashboards; and
  • KPI trend monitoring.

These tools are aimed at tracking and evaluating the health of the entire organization. Most of these tools offer better decision-making information when data can be monitored regularly and by different user groups across the breadth of company operations.

Aviation service providers have many SMS documentation requirements to demonstrate SMS compliance. During safety performance monitoring and measurement of SMS data points, considerable amounts of useful information can be distributed to other operational managers to facilitate their decision-making processes.

Whenever safety managers can share information with other department heads, this is a win-win. As department heads acquire useful information, safety managers are reducing resistance to the SMS and hopefully creating SMS evangelists. In a perfect world, SMS performance monitoring reports should not be kept under lock and key by the safety department.

Many times each year, safety managers tell me that they only need a few members of the safety team who need access to their SMS database. This is not a healthy attitude and is a sign of an underperforming safety culture. This is a common occurrence that I've witnessed in Latin American cultures where information hoarding is a power struggle between managers who are not secure in their assigned job position. They want to hoard the information and use their "expert power" to influence operational decisions and to play "office politics."

A better approach is to treat SMS data and reports coming from the SMS database as "privileged information accessible by all managers." Of course, there may be security requirements where certain data must be cleansed, such as

  • de-identifying data for ASAP programs;
  • restricting access to "confidential reports;" and
  • restricting access to HR-related data.

The point is that when department heads have direct access to SMS performance data, they may be able to correlate SMS performance to operational performance.

I should note that this may not be a valuable technique for operators tied to managing SMS data in spreadsheets. SMS databases offer considerably more features, such as

  • pre-defined trend analysis reports,
  • charts and graphs; and
  • raw data exports to Excel spreadsheets for further analysis.

An SMS database is the most secure, user-friendly technology to share information in the workplace.

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What Is Missing for Effective Safety Performance Monitoring

Too often, inter-department communication is limited. For example, a manager for either the maintenance department or the flight ops department has no visibility into employees' safety program participation. Commonly, a manager (dept head) may see an employee's name appear as they actively report safety-related issues or respond to other safety-related activities.

Yes, hazard reporting remains one of the most important activities for line employees; however, there is more to SMS participation than hazard reporting, such as:

  • Safety meeting participation;
  • Reading safety messages on time;
  • Completing assigned corrective preventive actions (CPAs) on time;
  • Occasionally reviewing the safety policies; and
  • Knowing their duties and responsibilities regarding safety.

How does your company track these elements? Or does your company track these safety activities?

In almost every aviation organization, there are no tools available for department heads to view an employee's participation in the SMS.

Is safety really important to your company? If it were, you would be tracking these items. Maybe you are, but can the department head access this information? Does the department head care about this information? In most cases, the answer is no.

Effective safety performance monitoring should include the activities of employees.

Safety Performance Monitoring Workflow for Aviation SMS

Why Employees Don’t Care About Your Aviation SMS?

Let's face it, over 80% of employees don't care about your aviation SMS implementation. Why not?

There is nothing in it for them. They don't get paid any more for SMS participation. They will do the bare minimum and will continue to "opt out" of your SMS activities until you have the tools to monitor their individual safety performance.

Every accountable executive will say they care about the SMS. This is a trite answer, but they should care because they are ultimately responsible. But do employees feel the same way? Why should they care?

Some companies tie employees' salary raise eligibility to SMS participation levels. In these cases, they need tools to monitor individual employee participation.

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Final Thoughts on Monitoring Safety Performance

Until your company has tools to "coerce" employees to participate in safety programs, most employees will continue to ignore your aviation SMS. This is not good news for the accountable executive, as he will be extremely limited in monitoring SMS performance.

Furthermore, until you can provide user-friendly tools to department heads to effortlessly view the aviation SMS, they will continue to view the SMS implementation as the province of the safety manager. This is a huge risk to every implemented SMS and liability to accountable executives.

If these challenges resonate with you, we can help. We provide a complete SMS solution that allows aviation service providers to manage all SMS documentation requirements within a single, centralized SMS database. If you need SMS performance monitoring tools, check out the following videos.

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To see a tool that allows employees to see their own safety score, check out the following video for inspiration.

This tool also allows managers to view employee participation activity in the SMS. You can either build your own employee safety performance monitor, or you can use the one in SMS Pro.

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Last updated in January 2024.

Topics: 3-Safety Assurance

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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