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Training DepartmentDec 17 20208 min read

The Key to great Safety Management System (SMS) is set in the core

Why SMS should be well adopted

Safety Management System in airline operations has been part of aviation legislation for some time now. It is a structured and well-defined system for how operators should manage safety risks and hazards. This means an aircraft that leaves one gate should travel to another without incident. Aviation is a complex business and safety is imperative. Our main goal is to get people, or things, into the air and back down again. To accomplish this we must adopt safe practices across the board. SMS is a tool for airlines and operators to achieve the safest possible results. 

According to ICAO, “Safety management seeks to proactively mitigate safety risks before they result in aviation accidents and incidents. Through the implementation of safety management, operators can manage their safety activities in a more disciplined, integrative and focused manner. Possessing a clear understanding of its role and contribution to safe operations enables the operator to prioritize actions to address safety risks and more effectively manage its resources for the optimal benefit of aviation safety.”

This is why the SMS is an organized way for the operator to achieve safety. At least that’s the purpose of the system. But, quite frankly, it boils down to how we define safety. We can have the most fantastic and well-constructed management system in the world. Yet, we still need to have the right approach to the concept of safety. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter how nicely structured we are when we are building up this management system. Therefore, let’s take a closer look at how we should define safety. Safety is something we often talk about as having or not having. However, the more we dig into the concept of safety we find that we should treat it as a verb. Safety is something we do!


Company culture starts with core values

For an airline, it’s essential to have a culture that creates ownership of safety with all workers within the organization. To create this ownership it is vital to have the undivided commitment of management. It all starts with the fundamental values of the organization. These values must then include firm expectations of behaviours that apply to all workers and management. We can refer to these as the ‘Expectation of a Professional Behavior’. This will allow us to live up to the company values. However, we should only consider this as the foundation of success. Naturally, there are many important aspects that help us create an organizational climate, which will promote safety culture efforts. It is not as easy as just stipulating a number of values and having expectations of behaviour.

To get a positive effect on our efforts, it is very important to have a certain frame of mind. Especially when it comes to safety and the development of a safety-conscious organization.

The first thing to remember is that safety is nothing that “we have”; safety is something that we continually do! Furthermore, safety is not about the absence of accidents and incidents; safety is to understand what normally makes us succeed with what we do every day!

Corporate management, through values and behavioural expectations, set this culture. The ownership of this culture is, however, something that must be in every worker’s possession, managers included.


Building systems with the human in mind

Humans have, more or less, looked the same for the past 10,000 years. Yet we still don’t fully acknowledge the human being when designing new systems or new technology. We increase demands, change surroundings, introduce new technology and then expect humans to cope. The revolution of technology has been and still is, the central aspect when it comes to new designs. This approach has made it possible for us to see people as bad apples. Sometimes we think we can solve safety problems by telling people to be more careful. We reprimand the miscreants, issue new rules or procedures and then demand compliance. But this shouldn’t be the case. We have to start to develop our surroundings, our systems and any new technology with the human in mind. Our cognitive functions should serve as a primary target if we want to increase safety.

We have entered into what some call the age of safety management, yet we still see people as a problem. Seeing them as a risk, a risk that we should constrain and remove at fault.

We have long searched for ways to limit human variability in what we think are safety systems. Performance monitoring, error counting and categorizing. These activities all assume that we can maintain safety by keeping human performance within pre-specified boundaries. In fact, while we make our systems safer, the human contribution to trouble remains stubbornly high.

For too long, we’ve put our hopes on improving safety by tightening the bandwidth of human performance even further. We’ve introduced more automation to try to get rid of unreliable people and then we write additional procedures. We “reprimand” errant pilots and tell them that their performance is “unacceptable” and then we train them some more. It is then when we improve supervision and tighten up regulations.


Good SMS, good job

According to much of the latest research, these ideas are now bankrupt. People do not come to work to do a bad job! Safety in complex systems is not a result of reducing degrees of freedom. It’s through training and practice that people, throughout an entire organization, create a safe working environment. Hence, safety is something we do. It’s not something we have to lose, gain or misplace!

To be able to move forward, we need to move into the age of a “systemic view”. Things that go wrong influence the aviation industry today more than ever. We analyze the accidents and incidents and then put countermeasures in place. Rather than treating accidents as a sequence of cause-effect events, we should view them as the unexpected behaviour of a system. This is a direct result of uncontrolled relationships between its constituent parts.

In other words, the combination of latent and active failures do not create accidents. They are the result of humans and technology operating in ways that seem rational at a local level. Yet, unknowingly, they create unsafe conditions within the system that remain uncorrected. From this perspective, simply removing a ‘root cause’ from a system will not prevent the accident from recurring. A holistic approach is necessary for us to identify, and address, any safety deficiencies throughout the system. To further develop an airlines safety culture, an understanding of this is significant.


The ultimate goal is to build a mature and proactive organizational culture, which does not merely react to unwanted events.

JT Lundström


Change starts at the top

For modern safety thinking to be successful, the management commitment is essential. The changes have to start at the top. We can incorporate them within the entire organization. You should write down this commitment and ensure that it is clear for people to understand. It is vital that the management shows this commitment visually through their daily work. With a strong commitment comes strong leadership that will help the organization navigate towards a strong safety culture. It’s not enough to just have a management team that commits to safety!  

All employees have a responsibility regarding safety. For the employees to be able to personally strengthen the safety culture, they have to feel valued and involved. The employees have valuable knowledge of the daily operation. You should involve them with decision-making, maybe have them participate in planning, if possible. If we engage employees in planning, monitoring and improvement of the company, the success rate will increase. The employees contribution to safety is important to acknowledge as, ultimately, it’s the people who DO safety.  

Most airlines have a good, working safety department with very dedicated and motivated team members. It’s important to realize that the safety department does not own our safety. We can call them our safety facilitators, or maybe safety custodians. Remember that the ownership of safety and the doing of safety belong to all of us!


Remember, safety is not something that we have, it is something we continually do. It is something we must do on a daily basis.

JT Lundström


Safety is not a possession, it's what we do!

Remember, safety isn’t something that we have, it’s something we continually do. It’s something we must do on a daily basis. The environment in which we operate is constantly changing, meaning safety is not a goal we will ever reach. As a consequence, we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to learn to cope with the unexpected, what we can refer to as resilient behaviour. Resilience is something that needs to run through the entire organization, from top to bottom.

There are many aspects that are important to help us create an organizational climate. They will help promote the safety culture efforts and create a resilient and systemic view of safety. We need to remember that it’s not as easy as stipulating a number of values and expectations of behaviour. We can consider this to be the fountain of success. However, to get a positive effect, it’s important to have a certain frame of mind. Especially when it comes to safety and the development of a safety-conscious organization. We should see safety as something that emerges from our daily work. Likewise, we can say the same about failure.

Failure will creep into the system if it fails to adjust to the dynamic reality in which it operates. We could look at an airline as a living organism whose prerequisites change constantly. Then we have to understand that success or failure is the outcome of normal performance variability. As this is the reality in which we operate, we should control the variability rather than constrain it. We can achieve the ability to control this through resilience and a systemic view of safety. Understanding this is vital to integrate a modern view of the Safety Management System (SMS).

So let’s go out and do some safety.

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