Assessing Your Aviation SMS Implementation
The things that often hurt aviation safety management systems (SMS) are less symptomatic of the bureaucratic side of formal SMS implementations than they are the type of working environment that management teams cultivate.
Accountable executives, with the assistance of aviation safety managers may create solid policies, but if they don’t take the secondary steps to adequately integrate the relationships between-
- the SMS' risk management processes,
- management's behaviors and attitudes,
- and front-line workers,
-then the SMS implementation will not function optimally.
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Aviation SMS Failures Represent Management Failures
It is in those secondary steps that aviation SMS implementations suffer the greatest deficit, and they should be carefully considered when assessing SMS effectiveness.
Take, for example, the fact that most incidents are because employees did not adhere to prescribed policies/procedures. On the surface, this looks to be the failing of the employees, whether they are:
- not paying attention during training;
- apathetic toward following prescribed business processes; or
- simply inept or negligent.
In reality, substandard employee performance represents a failing of the conditions of the SMS' risk management processes, which is a direct result of management’s actions or inaction.
For each SMS implementation, management is tasked with developing appropriate risk management processes AND with cultivating the right conditions for employees to adhere to the "system design." Namely, this is done through
- Safety leadership;
- Safety mindset (culture);
- Safety training;
- Regular (and transparent) safety communications; and
- Maintaining a balance between production and safety.
It’s certainly no coincidence the following areas of safety programs are often places of insecurity and worry for managers.
1 – Understand the Role of Safety Management vs. Safety Leadership
The role of leadership in driving safety in any system cannot be underestimated.
“Leadership” and “management” are often used interchangeably both in speech and action, but contrary to common practice they are NOT the same thing. Leadership isn’t a right, it is earned. While the capabilities of management are extremely important to an aviation safety management system, safety leadership will ultimately determine the performance of SMS implementations and aviation safety management is responsible for developing safety management AND safety leadership capabilities.
In so many ways, aviation safety management is the quantitative risk management efforts for enhancing the aviation SMS. It is the oversight of how risk is bureaucratically processed in the safety management system. The management process involves many actions, such as:
- Providing employee protection from self-reporting accidents, incidents, mistakes, and close calls;
- Developing credible safety policies that harmonize safety and production objectives;
- Acquiring suitable, user-friendly aviation SMS reporting tools;
- Developing quality risk management processes;
- Creating sophisticated risk analysis tools integrated with hazard register data; and
- Standardizing safety communication methods across the organization.
In so many ways, the consistent theme of managerial duties in every SMS implementation is documentation. All of the above bullet points can be documented, tracked, and itemized.
Related Articles on Aviation SMS Documentation
- How to Document Your System Processes in Aviation SMS
- 4 Pillars | Why Documentation in Aviation SMS Is Important - Beyond Compliance
- Best Practices for Documenting Your Aviation SMS
2 – Understand What Safety Leadership Is
Leadership in aviation SMS is about driving the qualitative risk management efforts in the organization by:
- Cultivating a healthy safety culture;
- Developing trusting relationships between management and employees;
- Opening informal lines of communication at all levels of the SMS; and
- Instilling a sense of shared safety responsibility among employees.
The above points are the intangible aspects of a system that creates adaptable risk management out of proactive risk management, and a bottom-up effort of safety out of a top-down effort. Leadership does not come quickly, and it puts a significant onus on safety management teams to do more than simply impress auditors with sound procedures and policies.
Leadership in aviation SMS implementations is when employees look to management for guidance because they trust management’s capabilities as decision-makers, rather than looking to them for “how to follow the rules and not get into trouble.”
3 – Mindset of Safety
While Human Factors account for a majority of safety incidents in the aviation industry, a chronic problem is that humans are looked at as a “problem to fix” rather than a solution. Humans are not robots, and the culture of the workplace and individual psychology play an important role in how employees perform. A well-trained and disciplined team is an extremely safe one, and for this reason, humans need to be regarded as a solution rather than as a problem.
A mindset of safety is the greatest line of defense against accidents in any system, and a mindset of safety cannot be cultivated as long as safety management/leaders view people as a problem to fix. When we are talking about a mindset of safety, it’s the commitment for management to train and condition the following three things in their workplace:
1. Chronic Unease
The daily routine of successfully completing tasks – even complex, dangerous tasks – has a tendency to
- lull employees into a false sense of security,
- take shortcuts and disregard some of the procedures, and
- give them false assumptions about the situation.
Chronic unease doesn’t always mean being worried – it’s simply the trained ability to be self-aware when exhibiting such behaviors (shortcuts, sense of security, assumptions).
2. Trust but Verify
This is one of my favorite expressions, and I use it constantly in life. In many ways, it is more an action than a mindset and ties into chronic unease. Trust but verify is a mindset/action where employees are trained to have confidence in what they do, and always double-check.
3. Emotional Awareness
Training employees in SMS to have emotional awareness plays a huge role in cultivating a mindset of safety and developing performant safety cultures. Tired/frustrated/overloaded employees are at risk of making poor decisions. In transparent environments, employees should have the ability to vocalize their feelings and pause tasks without fear of punishment. This point directly ties in with developing trusting relationships between management and employees.
Related Aviation Human Factors Articles
- Let’s Talk Human Factors - Complacency
- 5 Things to Know about Aviation SMS Human Factors
- More Than Dirty: Advanced Use of Human Factors in Aviation SMS
4 – Preparedness vs. Production
This is always a sensitive topic, particularly because – let’s face it – the common practice in most industries is that when it comes right down to it, the dollar is king. This means organizations will take safety shortcuts to maximize production. It is for this reason that quality management systems (QMS) can often seem at odds with safety management systems (SMS).
QMS in the aviation industry attempts to deliver the best customer service experience, part of which means no delays. Obviously, this regularly runs at odds with certain SMS policies and procedures that tend to slow things down for the sake of safety. Moreover, there is frankly a tone of pressure at all levels of an organization to produce rather than ensure preparedness:
- Executives have revenue goals that directly relate to QMS performance;
- Managers have pressures to maintain compliance (a type of safety production), and may interject potential problems to maintain it; and
- No employee wants to be “that guy” – the one who slows everyone else down because he is going too slow or points out a problem that turns out to be nothing.
When I think about the word production, the corresponding word is pressure. So it’s understandable why so many aviation service providers slip into focusing on production and performance rather than putting safety first. It will always be a battle. Safety managers simply have to continually reinforce management's value of safe operations. The two competing interests are not mutually exclusive. High-performing teams can easily adopt a safety culture geared primarily toward safety without necessarily compromising production goals.
Final Thought: Know Your Employees
It’s easy for safety management teams to get self-absorbed in their efforts – that is to say, so worried about their strategies for improving the SMS that they lose sight of individual employees’ abilities and attitudes. Continuous improvement in aviation SMS implementations should be built around the employees.
- How can your policies/procedures best aid employees in accomplishing safety?
- How can you change your safety promotion strategies to meet the interests of employees?
Creating and answering questions such as these will help safety managers ground their SMS strategies in specific behaviors, and will be much more effective as a result.
For employees to wholeheartedly embrace and participate in aviation SMS implementations, they need assurances that there will be no management reprisals for either self-reporting or reporting potential safety concerns that may distract management from production activities. Safety policies must be written for the employee.
Poor safety reporting cultures often lack three important elements:
- Credible non-punitive reporting policy that resonates with employees;
- Useful hazard identification training geared toward employee's area of operations; and
- User-friendly tools to report safety concerns.
Below are several non-punitive reporting policies that may strengthen your SMS safety reporting culture.
Last updated in September 2023.