Four ways to transform Safety Management Systems

Written by: Huw Ross
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This is my first blog post at Helios, so I am starting off slowly – and at the beginning – by introducing my view of the core building blocks of an SMS and some of the watch outs. You will recognise the blocks; no matter what challenges face the industry the foundation for safety is the same. Introducing these building blocks first sets the path for my future blogs where I plan to get into the detail on some key challenges facing safety professionals in aviation.

My building blocks are:

  • Visible leadership.
  • Right tools for the right job.
  • A culture that values learning.
  • Understand the aviation risks.

Visible leadership
Implementing safety management systems require strong and visible leadership – clearly showing commitment to improving safety. This commitment starts with the CEO and their leadership team. Commitment means energy and enthusiasm. It means that leadership behaviours that drive safety are present in senior leaders' day-to-day interactions with employees. Safety is always balanced with the needs of the business – this is a reality - what employees need to see is a real intent by our leaders to balance the safety priority with those critical business needs. Develop your leaders with a safety mindset and the foundation is strong.

Right tool for the right job
Make safety as accessible as possible. Terminology is important. Use terms that employees will engage with. Be careful using regulatory terms as the core language – this will turn them off. Access is critical. Design your access to the information carefully as a core accountability for leaders is to provide employees with the right tools to carry out their tasks. Tools in this context could be a process, roles and responsibilities, software tools, guidance and other useful information. The goal is to ensure that employees can get access to the right tool at the right time. Users don't want to have to take the whole toolbox to every job.

A culture that values learning
The focus on organisational culture as a foundation element of any management system has increased significantly over the last 15 years. The Eurocontrol Just Culture Task Force has transformed how we think about open reporting. It has extended its reach to engaging with the judiciary and inviting public prosecutors to joint learning initiatives. Work is still required to develop how our organisational culture approaches learning. The best teams want to continually learn from each other. They will openly stick their hand up to alert when it's not going well. They actively engage in a conversation when new ideas are proposed. Challenging our existing understanding of safety should also be considered normal practice.

Understand the aviation risks
Total aviation safety risk is the goal for our industry. On the surface everyone commits to reducing the risk of an aircraft accident. However, it is common for the different stakeholder groups within a single organisation to be misaligned. How are we therefore meant to create a single picture of risk to include the contribution from aircraft manufacturers, airlines, air traffic and others. This is a failing on our industry as the outcomes we want to avoid in aviation are obvious; an aircraft accident involving multiple fatalities. It should therefore be easy for us all to work together. Within ATM, for example, we have seen surrogates for accidents introduced to help limit the scope of the safety risk assessment to within their area of responsibility. This is not pushing us in the right direction. ATM use events like runway incursion and separation minima infringement. Are these outcomes useful? I view them not as outcomes but as indicators that a specific safety mitigation has failed; there is so much more to our total aviation system to understand.

There is a renewed message in aviation to introduce, or improve, safety management systems to support the improvement of safety performance in an industry that is going through significant change. This is not just about predicted traffic increase, probably a more significant disruptor is the introduction of new types of aviators in the industry (e.g. drone pilots). Aviation service providers with mature management systems and those just starting out on their journey will have to re-think their approach to safety to better engage employees and realise the performance benefits of an effective SMS.

In my next blog I will expand the discussion on understanding aviation risks and I will lay out my ideas on how we should improve.

Huw joined Helios in September 2017 as a principal consultant following 12 years at NATS, the UK air navigation service provider. Huw is driven to make real change in the aviation safety domain. He promotes a move away from the traditional safety management approach to new and innovative approaches that are fit for the future. If you would like to discuss any of the topics then please get in touch.

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