The Safety Management System (SMS) in aviation is typically defined as a systematic approach to managing safety risks in operations. This task is achieved by establishing necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies, and procedures. Depending on the regulatory environment, the size of an organization, and the nature of its operations, this process can become quite sophisticated. It involves hazard identification, occurrence reporting, risk assessments, safety action groups, follow-ups, inspections, management of change, performance review boards, indexes, targets, objectives, and much more. This all intertwines with quality and compliance management systems, creating levels of complexity and bureaucracy in safety management efforts to the point where the process can become self-focused and self-perpetuating.
If this happens, the fundamental purpose of these well-intentioned safety management processes can be lost. In such circumstances, the effort exerted in running the Safety Management System primarily drains the organization’s resources to feed a ‘Bureaucratic Monster’ rather than to ask meaningful questions and directly solve the most important issues connected to the safety level of operations. Regulation provides high-level, outcome-oriented requirements and guidance. The level of complexity and bureaucracy is, to a substantial extent, self-inflicted by organizations interpreting the regulation.
It’s important to occasionally conduct a reality check to ensure that the SMS still serves its fundamental purpose. There is one elegant and highly effective method to do that, which I call an ‘Elevator SMS’. Imagine you are tasked with assessing the effectiveness of an organization’s SMS and have just one minute in an elevator with a CEO, Accountable Manager, Nominated Person, or any other employee of the company. What questions would you ask, and what information would you seek to obtain before the elevator doors open?
The right questions under such extreme time pressure can strip away all the layers of bureaucracy, potentially revealing the inefficiency of the SMS. Will the CEO and front-line personnel provide similar answers? Will anyone be troubled by having to answer quickly, or even fail to understand the question? What conclusions can you draw from this? It never gets boring.
This is why, in parallel to explaining regulatory requirements, theory, and methods, we have designed the Aeroclass and BAA Training SMS courses to include a fair amount of mind-provoking exercises like this. These courses help attendees understand the importance and learn to ask such down-to-earth, fundamental questions. One of the elegant ways to achieve this is by using William Voss’s 2012 article “SMS Reconsidered,” from when he was the President and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. The homework we provide for classroom discussion provokes thinking within the framework of the fundamental deliverables of the SMS and facilitates discussion regarding the effectiveness of implemented control measures.
Download “Aeroclass Homework for Classroom Discussion”
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