SMS – Keep it Simple

Custom software, integrated databases, multiple data streams, automated digital analytical tools, cloud-based mobile apps… I love all these shiny new objects marketed to help you run your SMS, but do they enhance safety, or introduce new risks? This depends on the complexity, sophistication, maturity, and safety culture of your organization.

From my experience as a safety management practitioner, most organizations develop and implement safety management systems that are much more complex than is required for their actual operations. I appreciate making an investment and building for the future, but you need to consider the fact that your SMS must also be operational and function in your current organization. I have seen many systems implemented by companies that look very impressive and convincing in a PowerPoint presentation in a board room during the pre-audit briefings. Unfortunately, when tested on the floor by the audit team, the company staff do not know how to input or export usable safety data analysis from the systems.

I entered the aviation industry in 1980 to experience the end of the analog (blackboard and chalk) control/tracking systems, and the beginning of the digital computer (IBC PC Junior with dual 5 1/4” floppy drives and no hard drive) systems. In the 1980’s some operators understanding the need to increase tracking and monitoring capability had expanded their systems by adding larger blackboards around the walls of the Ops/MOC offices. Other more progressive companies had purchased a computer and were trying to figure out how to use Lotus 1-2-3 to create a status tracking spreadsheet to track pilot PPCs, training, medicals, aircraft inspections, component overhauls, AWDs, and…

I can tell you that the winning systems at that time were the blackboards! What I often found was that one eager “techy” person in the company convinced the owner that this new computer would save all the manual work that was being “wasted” on maintaining the blackboard system. The problem was that this was the ONLY person at the company who even know what to type into the computer after the small blinking green rectangular curser popped up in the top left corner of the otherwise blank 8” monitor! I know that I’m dating myself, but those who know, can not disagree!

It was interesting to see that the most successful company safety systems never completely abandoned the simple analog processes. Instead, they blended in the enhanced capabilities of digital systems to process and analyse safety data over time as the company safety culture matured.

Consider what you are doing today and ask yourself some of these kinds of questions:
– Have we kept the systems and processes that make up our SMS simple and scaled to fit the complexity (or simplicity) of our organization and nature of work we do?
– If our SMS speciality staff resigned tomorrow, would our systems be able to continue to function and provide risk mitigation information and products as intended?
– If our complex custom integrated software crashes, is the expertise available to quickly get our systems up and running without loss of data?
– If our CAA auditors show up and say “Ok, show me.”, can our systems and staff produce the expected/required responses?

In conclusion, my message and food for though is simply to keep your SMS simple. Keep your systems and processes manageable and scaled to meet your actual needs. Don’t listen to your ego or aspirational sales pitches for products that will make your SMS all-singing and all-dancing. Perhaps the old blackboard, suggestion box, and monthly company safety letter are still viable parts of your SMS?

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