Tame the SMS Beast

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.

Eye Cost Savings, Not Cost

If an organization simply copies someone else’s manuals and fails to conduct SMS training the cost of SMS appears minimal. But in actuality the costs may be very high. An SMS is put into place, but only in a digital file or in a hard copy manual gathering dust on a shelf, in addition to possibly not being applicable to the organization as it was someone else’s creation for that organization. In this scenario, no one participates, and there is no feedback from management to employees or from employees to management. It misses the fact that the idea behind SMS is to become proactive in reducing the costs of accidents, incidents and injuries. With this approach, it becomes true that the SMS really did not improve anything; it just added another layer of obligation.

But when the SMS is created as it should be, through unilateral brainstorming, input and feedback from all departments in the organization, the SMS will more than pay for itself by actually reducing and eliminating accidents, incidents and injuries that may have occurred without the SMS in place. It’s hard to put a price on accidents that didn’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 a limb, or possibly their life in an accident? Until you realize the risk and the cost associated with that risk, you cannot “realize” the price of SMS.

Add Administrative Policy

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.

Sometimes companies will say, “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.


About the Author

DeborahAnn Cavalcante, head, Diversified Aviation Consulting

DeborahAnn Cavalcante leads Diversified Aviation Consulting (DAC) and along with her associates 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 www.dac.aero.