Debunking Four Common Myths about SMS

By Thomas Sheckler

Several questions surround the subject of safety management system (SMS) and its associated programs, especially for smaller aviation service providers. Many of these questions stem from unfamiliarity with system safety basics. Confusion is also caused by misinformation generated by various vendors out to sell their own prepackaged SMS products.

This article examines and attempts to dispel four common myths pertaining to safety management programs. These myths include:

• SMS is just management’s newest flavor of the month.

• SMS is a strange and complicated thing.

• SMS should make you afraid … very afraid.

• SMS requires sophisticated software utilities with an elaborate IT infrastructure.

Myth #1: SMS is Just Management’s Newest Flavor of the Month

With recent ideas pertinent to working more efficiently and leaner through process improvement and quality assurance interventions, it is easy for working staff to become inundated by fluctuations in policies each new leadership regime instigates. These efforts are often initiated through half-hearted attempts that offer superficial improvement at best via cosmetic approaches. These simplistic efforts may provide a variety of numerical analyses and statistical reporting for upper management, but rarely tackle the ‘meat and potatoes’ of true adverse operational conditions. Safety management must take on a permanent dimension within the core of the organization.

Safety management is not a new concept nor an aviation invention. System safety programs have been used successfully for decades in other high-risk industries, such as chemical processing, plating, mining and nuclear power industries. For those industries that seriously embrace this science, their payback is significant through fewer injuries, less accidents/incidents and property/equipment losses, with corresponding reduced insurance costs and fewer worker compensation claims.

In order for these benefits to be realized, the organization’s safety management program must be thoroughly ingrained into every level of its working culture and intertwined within the tapestry of each function it performs. These ingredients should be infused into all production and service efforts. This means safety management must be a fundamental foundation in everything the organization does and is analogous with the expression “this is how we do business.” The fruit of these efforts provides ongoing fixes that are both practical and comprehensive in nature, making a better product for the internal and external customer.

Old notions of simply self-disclosing to a regulatory body and then firing someone will simply not suffice any longer. (Rarely did this tactic ever really fix anything, anyway). Take, for example, the FBO that hires someone with no former experience to perform line service duties, and then fails to provide adequate staff supervision to fulfill his/her duties properly. When this individual is commanded to tow and stow a $40M aircraft in a hangar without sufficient assistance, is it any wonder a damage event occurs? In fact, the probability is greater for an accident to occur than  to not! We know this tale … the FBO promptly fires the person and hires another who is just as inexperienced and again provides no training, etc. It doesn’t take an oracle to know it will only be a matter of time when a repeat occurrence will unfold. Did this organization learn anything from its own mistakes of repeatedly setting staff up to fail? Evidently not.

A satisfactory safety program will not only evaluate what happened and why, but also determine pertinent methods to prevent future occurrences and measure the adequacy of those methods. SMS should be a permanent and integrated fixture within the organization’s everyday business workings.

Myth #2: SMS is a Strange and Complicated Thing

Although SMS for aviation may be viewed as relatively new (despite its introduction to the aerospace world in the 1990s), these safety practices are not. That being said, within our industry there are many interests attempting to seize the moment to capitalize upon organizational weaknesses, namely ignorance of safety management concepts. These groups have done a good job of portraying SMS as if it were a modern art done by a master impressionist (open to interpretation), and this endeavor continues today. The main message being suggested is that SMS is too hard for the average person to understand. This knowledge is somehow restricted to the vendor who is intent on selling your organization an expensive off-the-shelf product, much like gypsy fortune tellers of the past. No high-level esoteric here — the bottom line is that your desperate need for their company’s expertise to design, develop and implement your SMS program for you. Essentially, this insinuates your organization is incapable of succeeding in invoking its own safety management program, one which is specifically tailored for your organization’s unique necessities. In other words, your organization cannot understand the mysterious intricacies involved in system safety. Therefore you should retain their services, since they obviously know what’s better for your organization. Some of these electronic tools being peddled are impressive, but don’t get the proverbial cart before the horse.

This is not to say you wouldn’t benefit from some professional advice of an expert, at least in the formative stages. This expert should help get you on the right track and warn you of potential snares to avoid. As your organization progress further on the SMS project, the consultant should eventually begin nudging you gently along to the point where you become increasingly less dependent on continued consultation. This expert’s help should aid in the creation of a program template that can adapt as your business evolves. If the consultant has built trust through faithful service and satisfied results by assisting your organization in getting its SMS program off the ground, then you should have confidence in soliciting the consultant’s help later if needed.

Unfortunately, the FAA has contributed to this ambiguity regarding its own SMS initiative. Many existing FAA publications could be written more clearly with less redundancy. Despite these frailties, these products can still be used with success. Explore other videos and publications of high caliber that broach the same subject, such as the following:

Reason, James (2001) Managing Error and System Safety. Civil Aviation Safety Authority (

Hudson, Patrick (2001) The Long and Winding Road. Civil Aviation Safety Authority (

Helicopter Assoc. Intl. (2010) Developing a Safety Management System. (

There are far too many online articles and toolkits to mention here, but they are definitely worth exploring. Begin by checking out the FAA, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Transport Canada, Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), Helicopter Association International (HAI), Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF), Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) and National Air Transport Association (NATA). Resources exist. Make use of them.

Myth #3: SMS Should Make You Afraid … Very Afraid

Common complaints related to this myth usually include a philosophy that implementing an SMS program has to be difficult and require the addition of several new staff. Both of these premises lead to the next assumption: SMS rollout will be extremely expensive. Not so. An honest SMS program may require a few champions to “carry the torch” — however, the everyday functions of the SMS project should be embedded within everyone’s daily chores and job functions. In fact, if staff members already carry out their roles properly, many of these SMS tasks may already be accomplished.

As in overcoming most obstacles in life, creating, developing and implementing an effective and successful SMS program will require considerable effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Changing behavior, whether for the individual or the organization, is usually hard in the beginning, even if the change is healthier. Work processes may have to be changed or adapted to include new safeguards or supervisory oversight. This means supervisors and managers need to participate actively with staff to ensure (and enforce if necessary) adherence to all procedures and policies. This should increase the levels of safety and quality. Safety initiatives can easily be worked into each of the organizational processes as part of the greater business vision.

The payoff in this effort is achieved when senior management begins to realize how the work is actually being performed, rather than what nicely documented processes might indicate. Here is an excellent opportunity for validation that safety practices already in place are being completed properly. This provides ample occasion to learn about the challenges and risks involved in each task performed within the organization. Observation by lower-tiered personnel will most likely lead to recognition of management’s diligence to provide a safe working environment for them, thus planting seeds of employee buy-in for future self-reporting of hazards, incidents, near misses, etc. Workers will begin to learn it is in their own best interest to help their employer make the operational environment safer, hence more successful and profitable through fewer mistakes, injuries and property damage.

Myth #4: SMS Will Require Sophisticated Software Utilities with an Elaborate IT Infrastructure

Many vendors touting pricey SMS tools and software packages are eager to display several forms of elaborate charts and graphs, complete with a variety of accompanying statistical analyses. Similar to Madison Avenue’s technique of marketing, they are bent on trying to sell a product by creating a false need. SMS does not rely wholly on data that appears in pie charts and bar graphs, but rather on vital input from those that work in the trenches. This is not to say that data produced graphically can not make the said data more easily digestible, but the data and criteria are the important commodities. More emphasis should always be placed on retrieving quality safety/hazard/risk data. Graphs and charts are simply by-products created from the analyses of the acquired data.

Another rarely-discussed issue about these vendors’ products is that they typically receive your company’s data through reports submitted via the Web. Thus, they manage your organization’s data, not you. Just something to think about.

The FAA’s SMS Web site offers good and simple MS Excel tools (i.e., preliminary gap analysis tools and detailed gap analysis tools for operators and MROs,) which may be useful to even the largest service providers. Through MS Excel you can easily create your own spreadsheets, graphs, and charts that are just as functional as someone else doing it for you — just for a lot less money.

Thomas Sheckler is president and senior consultant of Expert Aerospace Solutions LLC. His background includes engineering and all aspects of flight and ground operations of both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, having worked in several diverse operational environments (i.e., Parts 91, 135, 145 and military). Certificated as FAA A&P, technical trainer (with instructional curriculum design) and performance consultant, he has undergraduate degrees in aircraft maintenance and aviation management, and graduate degrees in system safety and human factors. A former FAA-volunteer Aviation Safety Counselor (Airworthiness), he continues to serve as a FAASTeam representative.

Established in 2010, Expert Aerospace Solutions LLC is a multi-discipline consulting agency specializing in aviation problem solving. EAS LLC engineers technical and nontechnical responses to issues such as (but not limited to) safety, compliance, training and quality interventions. Sheckler may be contacted via email at

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