Safety Governance Systems

Once upon a time, I went around the countryside auditing aerodrome safety management systems and dutifully asking SMS-related questions of all and sundry. It didn't matter who they were, I asked them what they knew about the aerodrome's SMS, how they managed risks, and what did they do to make sure everything was being well managed. I didn't ask everyone the exact same questions, like asking the guy mowing the grass how he ensured enough resources are available to manage safety, but I did bang the SMS gong at/to anyone who was around or would listen. I'm not so sure that was the right approach.

Turning the Tables

Now that I am an aerodrome manager myself, I might be seeing things differently or at least from a slightly different perspective. It came home to me a couple of months ago when an auditor made a slightly adverse comment about my recently re-vamped SMS*. The auditor suggested that my SMS was deficient because, in part, when questioned, my aerodrome reporting officers knew nothing about it and my immediate response was, why should they?

This was an idea I had brewing in the last months of my time with the regulator and its something I have (or am trying) to put into practice. My idea was that safety management probably wasn't pitched at the right level of an organisation (or maybe it was pitched at too many levels). It might have been better to call them Safety Governance Systems. After all, so much of an SMS hinges on the Accountable Executive with risk management and assurance the two key functions of an SMS and both guided by and reporting back to the upper echelon of the organisation.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that frontline operators can whizz around without a care in the world ignoring risks and having no accountability themselves. Nor am I advocating an industrial cleansing of safety managers across the globe.

I'm suggesting that an SMS should serve the needs to the executive of an organisation and as it flows down to the frontline, it should become embedded into the everyday activities of the organisation's do-ers.


I like to think of an SMS like a circulatory system. It sits, generally, deep within the body. On the outside, you see very little - the odd streak of blue, a pulse. But as you go deeper, you see capillaries, veins, arteries, major blood vessels and finally the heart. The fingers don't really need to understand the complex firing of the heart muscles to use the blood that flows through the system.

Much like the front-line operator doesn't need to understand all the machinations of an SMS to use the processes and procedures developed by the organisation to achieve and measure a safe operation. If the SMS is working, those processes will mitigate/control/address the operation's safety risks and will include feedback loops for assurance. To the front-line operator, safety becomes part of the way we do things around here.

Culture Just Is

That last phrase is deliberate. "The way we do things around here" is often the definition of culture used by people when they don't have a definition of culture. And from a pragmatic point of view, its not too bad in this circumstance.

By moving away from a focus on the system for the frontline, they get back to doing what they do. Only now, with the focus of governance being on safety, what frontline does is inherently driven towards the organisation's safety objectives.

Just part of the culture.

* I know, right? How dare he ;).