What is the difference between effective safety management v.s. the Safety Management System?

Many people and organisations confound the Safety Management System and effective Safety Management.

The SMS is the tool through which Safety can be managed.

One way to think about it is comparing it to a financial management system.

  • First of all the Financial Management System gathers all the financial data in the organisation (bills, invoices, sales records, expenses, etc) and crunches that data to obtain financial information.
  • Then the financial management of the operation is actually done when managers use the information from that system to make informed decisions. Until those decisions are actually implemented,  nothing has been managed yet.

It is crucial to understand that having the tool (SMS), does not lead automatically to a good execution of the task (Safety Management).3D digital render of an indoor exercise bike isolated on white background
Another way to think about it is of the SMS as the exercise bike in your basement.
The bike itself is not going to make you any fitter… you will have to jump on it and actually exercise.

This distinction is sadly many times missed in aviation organisations.
All the effort goes towards building up the tool (or a better bike if you will), but often not enough time is spent using it to actually be effective..
Rarely is the management team explained and trained in how to effectively use that tool to improve the organisational safety performance.

The result is a technically capable system where safety information sits unused.  Having information does not improve the organisation much, unless it is used to drive decisions and safety enhancing actions.

Managing safety is a so-called “socio-technical” problem. Given the fact that the technical side of the problem is easy to solve (reports, databases, investigation, …) most organisations focus on that. However the “social” part of managing safety takes a different skill set, one that is rarely trained.

An effective safety manager needs to be able to effectively communicate to the management team, diplomatically persuade them and gain their trust.
This very much depends on how information and safety knowledge is presented and how well the management team understand their responsibilities (and accountabilities) in the management of safety

To be effective as a safety manager, (s)he needs to first identify safety issues (technical) and then present a persuasive case to the management team (social) so that they will ACT. In other words, the safety manager needs to create operational visibility to the management team. Cover on

Without concrete safety-enhancing actions, your organisation is not managing its safety performance, it is just filling a safety database with damning evidence should something go wrong.

As regulations are becoming performance-based, Civil Aviation Authorities are going to look more and more at how the organisation performs rather than how nice the SMS looks, you will have to demonstrate that your SMS is effective.

Action Changes Things written by hand on whiteboardIn other words, how effective is the management team in applying the information from the SMS and improving the organisation?



About the Author
Jan Peeters

Jan is an experienced Safety practitioner who is always on the lookout to improve SMS and the management of safety. He coaches organisations and individuals in Safety Management.

6 Responses to Effective Safety Management and the SMS
  1. Jan Peeters

    (comment copied from the previous blog aviationsafetyriskmanagement.eu, user AdamJ)

    Good intro to SMS, Jan. I’m glad you touched upon the social aspects of safety management. I think that the role of the Safety Manager (we can debate the applicability of the term ‘Manager’ in this title another time maybe!) should not only be to have social skills when communicating risk to senior management, but also in communicating with the workforce.

    It can be very difficult in aviation safety to engage with the workforce (especially flight crew) due to roster patterns and so forth. Effective communication regarding RISK with senior management and the workforce is fundamental to a successful (Safety) Management System. The safety person’s role first and foremost should be to be an effective communicator, and not just about safety. If the management system of tools, processes and procedures is in place and robust then this role becomes significantly easier.

    Kind regards,
    Adam Johns

  2. Jan Peeters

    Hi Adam! Thanks for commenting! As you say the having the tools in place will make the role of the safety manager easier, but it does not do the work for him.
    The skill to present a case of a safety issue is unfortunately something that is not often taught in courses.
    I’ve seen myself cases where Safety Managers with the best intentions and a valid concern did not get through to management or staff, because they did not communicate at the appropriate level.

    Often a Safety Manager needs to learn by trial and error and after a while they get the hang of it. This can take a while though!
    It would be nice if organisations promoting SMS recognised the socio-technical nature and recommended some more training in the so-called “soft-skills” (Which are actually quite hard 🙂 ) Especially effective safety communication, which can really accelerate your SMS, is something that needs finesse.

  3. Jan Peeters


    I agree with the statement regarding confusion around the term Safety Manager, I have made a first attempt at explaining it in a new post:

  4. […] I explain in another post, having an SMS does not automatically mean that you are managing safety well. The SMS is a tool for […]

  5. […] safety manager does not have any authority to implement action directly and he/she needs to work with the management team of the organisation […]

  6. […] from the SMS which the Safety Manager effectively communicates to the management team. As I explain in another post, having an SMS does not automatically mean that you are managing safety well. The SMS is a tool for […]


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