Getting Your Arms Around SMS

The mere thought of developing or implementing a safety management system (SMS), sends shivers through many managers. They view it as an overwhelming task, sort of like eating an elephant. But just as the old cliché goes, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. It would seem then, that tackling the SMS monster could be made a simpler process by breaking it down into bite-size pieces, and focusing on smaller pieces so that one layer builds and coordinates with another.

As they embark on the SMS journey, many companies will be pleasantly surprised to find that they already have many of the elements of an SMS in place; however, they may not be documented or a direct correlation between policies, programs, systems, and procedures may be missing or nonexistent. SMS tools, like gap analysis tools, prove to be of great value in determining performance gaps, and what actions should be taken to eliminate the gaps, which essentially becomes the design of the SMS.

The challenge to management personnel in many organizations, will be how to transition the available information, (meaning their existing processes and procedures) and their understanding of SMS, into a functional safety management system in the most efficient and effective manner.

Myths and pitfalls

There are some common pitfalls that can get in the way of a successful SMS development and implementation in an organization. An awareness of these factors goes a long way to getting on the right track.

One of the myths I personally encounter in working with companies to help them develop their SMS, is that senior management does not need to be involved, once they give the green light to middle management to go ahead. It is so vital that senior management does not disengage at this point.

Allow me to share what I would consider to be a golden rule which becomes the foundation for SMS success, just as it is for any other initiative within an organization. That golden rule is that the organization’s executives must totally “buy in” to the SMS success and remain engaged in the process throughout the entire development and implementation, by committing the time, resources, and effort to development, implementation, and communication that it will require.

Think about it, if the executives of the organization do not take seriously the value of the SMS, how can they expect the employees to embrace the behavioral changes that will be necessary for compliance? This is easily accomplished by conducting regularly scheduled briefings to communicate progress and maintain forward movement. It will be critical for senior executives to motivate middle management, as this is where the accountability for change most likely falls. Lack of motivation coupled with accountability for forward progress at the middle management level will surely doom the project.

Cultural change

A safety management system may require a cultural change within the organization. Organizations with a high risk tolerance may face a greater challenge in overcoming failure of the SMS. The accepted ways of doing things or “norms” of the organization may be deeply embedded in the culture. If those norms permit workarounds and shortcuts, a cultural change is in order for SMS success. Culture develops over time, dependent on the seniority of employees, rate of turnover, experience level of employees, training, administrative policies and consequences of safety noncompliance, or lack of consequences for safety noncompliance, as well as many other factors.

Changing the corporate culture involves new safety habits that are repeated until they become the new normal. Implementing positive necessary change in these areas is indeed a process and not an event, and must be taken into account when undertaking SMS. Everyone must believe and take part in the process. Some scary choices may need to be made, not exclusive of personnel changes.

Evaluate cost savings not cost

More than once, I have heard the objection SMS just costs so much. SMS cost is truly that and nothing more if the organization simply copies someone else’s manuals and additionally fails to conduct SMS training. An SMS is put into place, but only in a digital file or a hard copy manual gathering dust on the shelf, in addition to possibly not being applicable to the organization as it was someone else’s creation for that organization. No one participates, and there is no feedback from management to employees or from employees to management. The whole idea of SMS is to become proactive in reducing the costs of accidents, incidents, and injuries. This approach defeats the whole purpose; it then becomes true that the SMS really did not improve anything; it just adds another layer of obligation.

In fact, when the SMS is created as it should be, through unilateral brainstorming, input and feedback from all departments in the organization in conjunction with one another, the SMS will more than pay for itself by actually reducing and eliminating accidents, incidents, and injuries which without the SMS in place may have occurred. No one can count the accidents that don’t happen; so here is the real question; how much are you willing to allot in your budget for an accident or injury?

Where exactly is the line item cost in your budget for one of your employees losing their eyesight or limb, or possibly an aircraft crash? Until you realize the risk and the cost associated with that risk, you cannot “realize” the price of SMS.

Another reason for what would seem to be a well-organized and effective SMS to fail is not having an administrative policy in place that defines clear expectations and goals. This combined with monitoring, measurement, and continuous improvement is how the organization can determine if the SMS is successful.

I have heard it said “if we do an SMS we are going to get all these bad reports.” Yes! Isn’t it better to identify and know about near misses before they become actual accidents? This is evidence that the SMS procedures are working!

An organization that is inundated with hazard reports certainly should be drilling down to the root causes of the issues. When employees have had the chance to say “Wow, that was close,” the organization is ripe for an accident. The reporting of near misses within the SMS framework should be viewed as opportunities to mitigate or eliminate the risks associated with the near misses, resulting in an enhanced safety culture and environment and improved profitability.

To increase the success rate of your SMS I recommend taking simple small bites to whittle away at a larger task. Starting with the simple steps and perspectives below may help to get your arms around the looming monster that disguises itself as SMS.

  • Stay engaged throughout the organization from the very top position in the organization to the new hire employee.
  • Determine what processes and procedures (elements of SMS) you have and what you need.
  • Document those procedures.
  • Link the processes and procedures together by communicating.
  • Use reporting to identify and mitigate risks.
  • Monitor, measure, and improve your SMS continually.
  • View hazard reports as opportunities to enhance and improve safety.


DeborahAnn Cavalcante leads Diversified Aviation Consulting (DAC) and has firsthand experience in air carrier operations, private charter aircraft, general aviation operations, military/civilian interface, FBO management, maintenance repair station training, safety training, human factors training, and customer service training. For more information on DAC visit