Troubleshooting the Aviation SMS Implementation
Fact: In most countries, aviation service providers must implement formal aviation safety management systems (SMS).
Fact: Most aviation safety managers tasked to implement SMS programs have primary duties outside the safety program. Their day jobs may be as pilots, airfield maintenance engineers, etc.
Fact: Most safety managers are lower in the organizational chart than department heads accustomed to doing business "the way we've always done it."
Fact: Most safety managers have difficulties learning who is subverting the aviation SMS.
How do you discover who is subverting the SMS?
Related Aviation Safety Manager Articles
- What Makes a Good Aviation Safety Manager?
- How Safety Managers Increase Their Power in Aviation SMS
- 5 Types of Aviation Safety Managers
Here are a few tactics that every aviation safety manager should be aware of.
Identifying Resistance to the Aviation SMS
Before you can determine who is not participating or subverting the SMS, you need to know what to look for. Department heads typically hide their resistance to change, but here are a few indicators:
- Persistent delays in managing tasks assigned in the aviation SMS, such as assigned issues, performing hazard analyses or safety risk analyses;
- Increase number of days taken on leave, outright quitting, or requesting a transfer to other divisions;
- Repeated quarrels regarding purpose and/or effectiveness of an implemented SMS;
- Sullen demeanor at safety meetings;
- Using their power to influence subordinates to join silent resistance;
- Strategic use of "good-old-boy" networks to insulate themselves from punitive measures; and
- Repeated, baseless objections to why your aviation SMS strategies won't work.
A common story at airlines is that department heads will tell subordinates not to report safety concerns through the implemented safety reporting system, but to bring concerns directly to them. In short, these managers encourage subverting your safety processes, thereby decreasing the desired effectiveness and purpose of the SMS.
Department heads who prefer to handle safety concerns "informally" may be intimidated by the SMS. Another explanation is that they may not be familiar with documenting safety concerns in the SMS and are reluctant to show that "they need help," as this may be interpreted as a "sign of weakness" or ineptness.
In short, department heads need to:
- Feel in control of their "tiny part of the world;"
- Save face (appear confident, in control of how they appear to others); and
- Manage many competing demands, while learning these "new" SMS risk management strategies.
Stereotypical Resistant Department Heads
Don't be shocked when you find one or two department heads deprecating or damaging the SMS. I will not point fingers, but I've developed a stereotype of the typical SMS backstabber.
They are most likely to be:
- Slow to adapt to changing technologies;
- Grew up "reacting" to events with little forward-thinking of proactively preventing them;
- Very good at following processes (which may be the origination of their closed mindset);
- Influential within their departments; and
- Most likely to be over fifty years old.
Before the advent of required aviation SMS, aviation service providers had a different mindset toward dealing with equipment damage and loss. Every year, part of the budget was "expected" to be set aside to cover anticipated events that happen every year. An event occurs, management puts out the fire by pouring money onto it.
Department heads learn to always be reacting, and when not reacting, they are looking for ways to bring profit to the organization. Don't get me wrong. These department heads become very good at reactive risk management techniques, which is a skill not to be discounted.
Related Articles on Aviation Risk Management
- Difference between Reactive, Predictive and Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- 5 Indicators of Reactive or Proactive Safety Culture in Your Aviation SMS
- What Is Reactive Risk Management (Why It’s Essential for Aviation SMS)
These "anticipated" events are difficult to accurately pinpoint as to their exact causes, or even to the exact type of event. For example, every year ground damage accidents and incidents (events in which airline personnel damage aircraft during ground operations) occur as airline personnel and contractors work on or around aircraft on the ground either:
- near the maintenance facility;
- in the hangar; or
- on the ramp.
Every year, an airline may have one or multiple "events" and each event may easily exceed $500,000 and $750,000 for hangar or ramp-related incidents.
Examples of these events may be:
- Unmanned equipment rolling into aircraft (how often do we see this happening?);
- Hangar doors closed onto aircraft;
- Ground equipment inadvertently driven into or underneath an aircraft;
- The spectacular center of gravity shift and nose or tail contacts ground;
- Aircraft collides with another aircraft on-ramp; or
- Aircraft collides with a fixed object while being towed (hangars, snowbanks).
Keep in mind that before SMS, these events happened all the time and many old-school-managers simply accepted these losses as "the cost of doing business." They grew up in the reactive risk management era and didn't have the tools (data) or processes to proactively or predicatively identify and prevent these losses. These managers know very well how to operate in the "reactive risk management mode" and have not been convinced of a better way of doing business.
These old-school, reactive risk managers are experts, and some are reluctant to learn and adopt new processes. These are the ones who sleep in the SMS course or are always on their phone with a subordinate when they are scheduled to be attending SMS training. You know who I'm talking about. They are in every organization. But things are changing.
I'm seeing younger managers who see "the light" and the benefits of SMS. These managers have been trained in reactive, proactive, and predictive risk management strategies and these new managers don't have preconceived ideas as to "how we've always done business."
Tools to Find the SMS Program "Haters"
Besides direct behavioral observations noted above, the safety manager has a few tools available to help identify the silent detractors to the aviation SMS implementation.
- Anonymous, Web-based safety surveys;
- Walking around and chatting informally with employees; and
- Statistical analysis revolving around departmental hazard reporting culture.
When performing anonymous surveys, crafty safety managers will focus on delivering the survey to one department at a time. This tactic allows safety managers to analyze survey results and compare results with each department (or division).
Related Articles on Surveys in Aviation SMS
- Aviation SMS Surveys - an Often Neglected Safety Promotion Tool
- 30 Good Questions for Safety Surveys in Aviation SMS [With Free Resources]
- How Safety Officers Benefit from Aviation Safety Surveys - Free Templates
Informal chatting with employees also proves effective to identify resistance to the aviation SMS. Safety managers can often learn more from what is not said, than what employees are willing to share. There may be a sense of distrust that the safety team will have to overcome for this tactic to yield results.
When safety managers detect that there are NO or VERY FEW safety reports coming from a department or division, this is a red flag. There should always be reports, especially for operations, facilities, and maintenance.
Overcoming Resistance to the Aviation SMS Implementation
Let's say you suspect potential managers are not "with the program." What should safety managers do to overcome this resistance?
Determine why these managers have problems with the aviation SMS. A few reasons include:
- Department heads feel that the SMS is making their jobs harder;
- Dept head have not time to learn new processes;
- Dept heads feel like they are losing control (power); or
- Poor understanding of the SMS requirements and processes for implementation.
More reasons managers resist change can be found at this link.
Tools in your SMS to combat this resistance may include:
- Informative and educational newsletters;
- Formal and informal training using aviation SMS software tools to educate and inform;
- Educational safety surveys;
- Managerial SMS training for executives;
- Efficient and time-saving corrective action tracking software;
- User-friendly chart & graph reporting software that saves department heads time; and
- Intuitive safety dashboard charts to inform and reduce time chasing for answers.
Many of these tools benefit department heads outside the realm of safety and add value to department heads' decision making processes.
An effective way to reduce resistance to SMS implementations is to show ALL department heads how SMS benefits them. When there is resistance to budgeting SMS database software, a preferred tactic is to show department heads how they benefit. Show them that better data means better decision making. Make sure they understand this data is not just for the safety department's benefit, but for all managers.
Another effective technique is to encourage department heads to take an active role in the SMS implementation. When managers take ownership and have a stake in a project, they are less likely to subvert the SMS.
Related Articles on Aviation SMS Implementation
- Why Should We Implement Aviation SMS?
- SMS First Steps - How to Create an SMS Implementation Plan
- 3 Myths about Aviation SMS Implementation
Final Thoughts on Managerial Resistance to Aviation SMS Programs
Safety managers are "change managers!" Discovering who is "not with the program" and thwarting your SMS is incredibly important in the early stages of your SMS implementation. Finally, learning the root cause and finding creative corrective actions are two important skills that safety managers must learn to acquire.
Good luck implementing your SMS program, safety managers!
If you need tools to make your jobs easier with all the documentation, check out the following videos. User-friendly hazard reporting processes reduce friction to SMS.
You may be interested in starting an SMS or reviewing your existing SMS. This is a very good SMS checklist to use.
Published January 2019. Last updated September 2021.