Tame the SMS Beast

SMS is not a monster managers must fear. Whittle away at this seemingly monumental job one task at a time


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 tasks so that one layer builds and coordinates with another.

As they embark on the SMS journey, companies may be pleasantly surprised to discover they already have many SMS elements in place. However, these elements 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 block successful SMS development and implementation. An awareness of these factors goes a long way toward getting on the right track.

One of the myths that often trips up companies hoping to develop their SMS is the belief that senior management does not need to be involved in the process once they give the green light to middle management. However, it vital that senior management remain engaged.

A golden rule that becomes the foundation for SMS success, just as it is for any other initiative within an organization, is that an organization’s executives must totally “buy in” to the SMS and remain engaged throughout the process from development to implementation, by committing the time, resources, and effort it requires.

Think about it. If the executives of an organization do not take SMS seriously, how can they expect employees to embrace the behavioral changes that will be necessary for compliance? Executives can show their support via regularly scheduled briefings that communicate progress and maintain forward movement. For changes to be successful, it will be critical that senior executives motivate middle management, as this is where the accountability for change most likely falls. Lack of motivation coupled with a lack of accountability for forward progress at the middle management level will surely doom the project.

Cultural Change

A safety management system may also 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 necessary in order to attain SMS success. Culture develops over time, and is 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.

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