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  • Writer's pictureJose Martin

Safety Management System (SMS) - Connecting the Dots

Safety Management System (SMS) for drones

SMS is designed to minimize incidents, accidents, and fatalities by enabling aviation organizations to identify hazards and mitigate risks proactively. SMS achieves these goals through several key methods:

  • Addressing potential issues early enhances the safety of products or services, preventing incidents, accidents, or fatalities.

  • SMS supports better decision-making by prioritizing resources based on data analysis.

  • Consistent terminology and communication strategies foster a strong safety culture within the organization and across the industry.

  • SMS combines safety promotion, hazard identification, risk assessment, and performance evaluation into a comprehensive system.

Connecting the Dots: Integrating Processes for Enhanced Safety

An SMS requires an organization to "connect the dots" in ways that might not happen otherwise. This integration brings together processes that might typically operate in isolation, creating a more comprehensive and aware approach to safety.

Case Study: UAS Design Organization

Consider a UAS design organization where operators fly the UAS and design and manufacture it. Observations made by UAS pilots regarding specific operational issues, such as decreasing the reliability of a component, are key. Under an SMS, these observations are reported, triggering Safety Risk Management processes.

This leads to a thorough assessment, identification of the underlying issue, and implementation of corrective actions. Without an SMS, these individual observations might go unnoticed, and the hazard could persist, potentially leading to a critical failure.

Reporting and commitment are fostered in the culture and commitment of senior management.

Practical Steps to Implement an SMS and the Role of CEO Commitment

Implementing a Safety Management System (SMS) involves setting clear goals, creating policies, and defining procedures to achieve those goals. Here’s a breakdown of the practical steps for the four components of an SMS and the crucial role of CEO commitment:

Develop a Simple Safety Policy focused on the execution

  • The goal is to ensure higher engagement and clear expectation management.

  • Create a concise and straightforward safety policy.

  • While all stakeholders are involved, the UAS program manager is responsible for the program’s safety, and the CEO/president is ultimately accountable. No other person has this level of accountability. The CEO/president must lead by example and provide the necessary resources to meet the safety objectives and policy.

  • Periodically review and update the safety policy. The CEO should integrate safety performance into the evaluation process and consistently demonstrate commitment by participating in status meetings, visiting operations, and discussing safety with employees. This approach underscores that safety is paramount.

Establish a data-driven process- Culture is king, and data serves as its mirror - Safety Risk Management

  • Leverage data to minimize reliance on individual decision-making or impulsive judgments. The organizational culture mirrors the CEO's attitude and actions; if the CEO does not lead by example, data-driven practices will falter, and employees may hide issues out of fear of repercussions. Thus, a strong culture underpins the process. Create easy-to-follow procedures for reporting and quantifying risks. For example, implement a standardized risk assessment form that allows employees to systematically document potential hazards, ensuring all risks are evaluated and managed consistently.

Implement an Improvable and Adaptable Safety Assurance Plan

  • Safety assurance is essential for validating, through data, whether risk mitigation controls are effective. It serves as a lessons-learned tool that supports continuous improvement by tracking trends and ensuring the risk profile of operations is well understood and not evolving unnoticed. This process helps maintain the operational pulse.

  •  A system for collecting and analyzing data from UAS flights must be established to implement this. Use this data to perform regular safety audits and reviews, identifying deviations from the expected risk profile. Encourage all employees to report incidents or near-misses through a user-friendly reporting system. Conduct periodic training sessions to ensure everyone understands how to use the system and the importance of their contributions. This approach allows for real-time monitoring and continuous improvement of safety practices, ensuring new risks are promptly identified and mitigated.

Create a Positive Culture – Culture is king

  • There is no one more responsible for the culture than the CEO. Alan Mulally is a good example of this, as illustrated in the book "American Icon." When Mulally became the CEO of Ford, he introduced a culture of transparency and accountability. In his "Business Plan Review" (BPR) meetings, executives were required to use color-coded charts to report the status of their projects—green for on track, yellow for potential issues, and red for problems.

  • Initially, all reports were green, which Mulally found unrealistic given Ford’s dire situation. He emphasized the importance of honesty and data-driven reporting. One day, Mark Fields, then head of Ford’s Americas division, courageously reported a critical launch issue with a red status. Instead of reprimanding him, Mulally applauded and said, “Mark, that is great visibility. Who can help Mark with this problem?” This pivotal moment demonstrated that acknowledging problems was valued, encouraging a culture of transparency and collaboration. This shift allowed for more accurate risk assessment and management, significantly contributing to Ford’s turnaround.

  • Create easy-to-follow processes for reporting and quantifying risks. For example, implement a standardized risk assessment form that allows employees to systematically document potential hazards, ensuring that all risks are evaluated and managed consistently. This approach, supported by a strong culture of transparency and data-driven decision-making, ensures that risks are effectively identified and mitigated.

  • Implementing and expanding SMS fosters collaboration in hazard identification and mitigation, enhancing safety across the aviation industry. A simple, accessible SMS manual, supported by specific processes for areas like SRM, ensures comprehensive coverage and compliance. The CEO's commitment to the program sets the tone for a safety-first culture.

  • Once you have decided to implement an SMS, what practical steps can you take for each of the four components? A successful SMS combines thought-out goals and objectives with policies and procedures designed to achieve those results.

The Importance of Simplicity in SMS Documentation

For an SMS to be effective, it must be simple and accessible to all company employees. The SMS manual should be concise, ideally no longer than 20 pages, covering all essential aspects clearly and straightforwardly. The manual is for all employees and provides straightforward and concise information on how it works. Specific areas like Safety Risk Management (SRM) can have supporting documents and processes tailored to their unique requirements and audience.

Real-World Benefits

Participants in the FAA's voluntary SMS program have reported significant safety improvements. Issues are now addressed more rapidly, with high-risk problems managed within hours. The program, which started as a pilot project in 2007, has expanded to include various aviation sectors, demonstrating its effectiveness in enhancing safety.

Global Alignment

The expansion of SMS requirements aligns the U.S. with international standards set by the ICAO, facilitating global operations for U.S. companies. Collaborative hazard information sharing further enhances safety by ensuring that the most capable entities address hazards.


Expanding SMS implementation and fostering collaboration in hazard identification and mitigation will significantly enhance safety across the aviation industry, benefiting organizations and the public. SMS transforms isolated processes into a cohesive, safety-driven framework by connecting the dots. Simplicity in the SMS manual is crucial to ensure that all employees can understand and engage with the system effectively, with additional supporting processes for specific areas like SRM to provide comprehensive coverage and compliance.



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