SMS Considered

While in Bali talking Runway Safety with a wide range of industry personalities, I found myself at the hotel bar talking SMS with Bill Voss from Flight Safety Foundation. The topic was obviously on Bill's mind because upon my return, I found his latest president's piece in FSF's AeroSafety World to be a good overview of his main SMS points. Some of these points have been on my mind too. Since I'm not one to recreate the wheel (providing it works and is fit for purpose), I'll use some of Bill's well-formed words to kick this off.

Guidance Material

Back when the international standards for SMS were signed out at ICAO, we all knew we were going to launch a new industry full of consultants. We also knew that all these consultants couldn’t possibly know much about the subject and would be forced to regurgitate the ICAO guidance material that was being put out.

The title of the piece is SMS Reconsidered but I'm a little bit more critical of how SMS has been implemented in some places and would argue it was never really considered in the first place. The "regurgitation" of guidance material has been a big problem.

ICAO guidance material touting the "four pillars" was, as I saw it anyway, what the title suggested - guidance material. The industry was meant to consider the material and apply it within their operational context, corporate structure and organisational culture. The level of complexity within the operator, the existing systems in place, the attitudes of everyone involved were/are meant to be considered and a tailored SMS developed.

The reasons behind the current state of SMS are many, varied and probably not worth going over. It is more important to get the concept back on track. That's a big task and bigger than this little blog post. Instead, I wanted to discuss Bill's "four audit questions".

Levels Revisited

Bill's piece outlines four seemingly simple questions designed to test the operation of an SMS:

1. What is most likely to be the cause of your next accident or serious incident? 2. How do you know that? 3. What are you doing about it? 4. Is it working?

When posted on the FSF discussion forum on LinkedIn1, a fifth question (taken from the text) was added:

5. Can you show in the budget process where resources have been re-allocated to manage risk?

Interestingly, it was initially assumed that these were questions posed to the safety manager or some other safety professional as part of discussion between like-minded professionals. However, later comments did swing around to my first initial understanding that they could be asked of anyone within the organisation.

In fact, they should be asked of multiple people at different levels of the organisation.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the need to find the right solution at the right level and that the same tools may not be appropriate at different levels.

When thinking about SMS as a whole, there are an infinite number of ways of implementation but all must permeate all levels of the organisation with systems, processes and tools suitable to the needs of each level with communication channels between the various levels.

Bill's five questions, being agnostic to any specific SMS approach, can be applied to every level of the organisation. They should be asked of the safety manager, the operations manager, the training manager, the maintenance manager, the line supervisor and, probably most importantly, the CEO.

They aren't the only questions which need to be asked, but they are a good starting and ending point. Having all the "bits" of an SMS is required from a regulatory point of view but system effectiveness is vital to maintaining an ongoing level of assurance in an operator's ability to manage safety.

Pearls

I've audited or reviewed quite a few SMSs - only a few have showed any real consideration of the SMS concept and were tailored to suit the operator's needs. These were often the better performing systems and they bore little resemblance to the "four pillars".

At the Bali conference, I spied the completely different approach taken by Bombardier. It was mentioned a number of times that it is copyright, so I haven't included a picture here but you can find a presentation outlining their approach on the Transport Canada website. I can't comment on the effectiveness of the system but it is definitely food for thought and a ray of hope that the SMS concept is being considered, digested, pondered, manipulated, tailored, and so on.

1. It's a closed group, so I'm not sure who is able to see the discussion.