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THE RIGHT STUFF What is Your SMS Missing?

Posted 9 years 40 days ago ago by Admin


As a member of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) Safety Management System (SMS) Working Group, we attempt to provide helicopter professionals with useful ideas and tools to help with their SMS implementation and sustainment. As you might imagine, the needs of aviation programs can vary widely depending on the size and scope of the operation.  Despite the FAA’s reluctance to regulate SMS for other than Part 121 operators in the U.S., many proactive aviation companies and agencies have voluntarily begun their own implementation with varied results. By now, most of us in this industry are familiar with SMS and its four pillars: (1) safety policy (2) safety risk management (3) safety assurance (4) safety promotion. (If these four components aren’t familiar to you, it’s time to get out of the cave and see the light!) These items are interrelated and are the essential framework for an organization’s SMS program.


When working with or talking to operators, the members of the USHST SMS Working Group have observed different levels of SMS application as well as employee perceptions of how well they are performing. In many cases, company personnel believe that they are further along in their implementation than they actually are. This is not necessarily a negative point (hats off to them for actually embracing SMS), but it highlights a trend among aviation professionals that they do not fully comprehend the extent to which the SMS pillars must be applied within their organizations. This realization can really only first occur when you have an outsider review your SMS program. This is one of the steps in truly understanding what “stuff” is missing from your own system. Granted, a maturing SMS should have already begun looking inwardly through its own internal evaluation program (IEP). However, the most helpful reviews usually come from an impartial entity that is not connected to the organization.

As an organization progresses through SMS maturity, the desired goal is to be more predictive than reactive. To truly achieve this, programs need to be more aware of the gaps that might exist so that they can fix them to sustain long-term results. In our experience we see gaps most notably in three areas: (1) management of change, (2) continuous improvement, and (3) safety culture. There are many elements that form your SMS, but these seem to be the “right stuff” that can truly transform your organization and get you to the predictive stage of your program.



When we talk about management of change (or change management), it often is overlooked mainly because of the effort that is required to do it correctly. John Kotter, the Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus and author, defines change management as “an approach to transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations to a desired future state.” This is not an easy task, especially in large organizations. However, it is critical if we want the outcome to be positive (i.e. safe) and lasting.  

Organizations will typically attempt to mirror an existing process at another location, such as building a new maintenance base or expanding the route structure into a new area. This is usually deemed a “quick fix,” but does not necessarily account for your organization’s specific requirements. Just because it worked elsewhere or for another company is no guarantee that it will work for you.  

Another common philosophy is to rely on dedicated employees to spend the extra effort required to implement the change by “muscling” or “pushing” their way through the project to make up for inadequate planning up front. This is the square peg-round hole phenomenon that we all know is neither efficient nor good at affecting positive change. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) states, “A formal management of change process should identify changes within the organization which may affect established processes, procedures, products, and services. Prior to implementing changes, a formal management of change process should describe the arrangement to ensure safety performance.” Senior leadership and accountable executives must embrace what University of Michigan School of Business professor and author Robert Quinn titles “Deep Change.” His approach looks at the transformational paradigm and attempts to change not only practices, but also outcomes.

Every commercial enterprise must embrace the concept of continual improvement in order to effectively compete in the marketplace and survive. The American Society for Quality defines continual improvement as an ongoing effort to improve products, services or processes. Continuous improvement is a characteristic of a “learning culture” that enables proactive risk management through process assessment and improvement (from “Implementing Safety Management Systems in Aviation” by Alan J. Stolzer and Carl D. Halford). Organizations that always look at ways to make processes better will ultimately benefit from a safer and more efficient system. Everyone willingly participating in this concept helps all to truly understand what the root causes are while enabling better solutions.

This involvement also helps minimize the tendency for organizations to “drift into failure,” a term coined by professor, author, and pilot Sydney Dekker. It starts when we view our past successes as a guarantee of future safety: “We’ve always done it this way and have never had a problem.” This mindset leads to complacency and the possibility of narrowing the safety margins because we’ve gotten away with it before. Always being mindful of what could be done better will ultimately result in identifying potential problems, and help to prevent quality and safety deficiencies.

Peter Drucker, the famed business professor and bestselling author, once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This was stated in respect to business management, but culture can have a profound effect on the success of an organization and its SMS. If the environment within your operation does not allow for your employees to express concern or identify potential issues, the likelihood of safety success is near zero. Leaders often think they know exactly what the problems are when in reality it is as if they are circling an iceberg with a host of issue lurking below the surface. By having a positive safety culture, those issues can rise to the surface more openly and be addressed before a negative consequence occurs.  Ideally, organizations want their employees to be as C.S. Lewis once stated “...doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” By having this level of participation, it will enable the change management and continuous improvement processes to flourish and further enhance your SMS.

While the elimination of aircraft accidents and/or serious incidents remains the ultimate goal of our industry, it is recognized that the aviation system cannot avoid hazards and associated risks. However, as more and more helicopter operations continue to implement and sustain SMS, they will see huge benefits to their company, employees, and customers – both from a safety and quality perspective. Also, by not forgetting to focus on the elements of change management, continuous improvement, and safety culture, these professionals will have a more integrated and predictive system. This can work for large and small operations alike. The great thing about SMS is that it is scalable and can work based upon your needs. Our willingness to learn and change is crucial. Organizations should never stop asking if they have the right stuff to achieve SMS success.