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Safety Management Systems: Don't Call it a Program!! - Dr. Maxine Lubner and Dr. Peter Canellis

Boeing forecasts a doubling of the size of the global fleet in the next 20 years. In order to maintain the highest standards of safety, aviation is integrating safety into every aspect of operations.

Vaughn College offers a 12-credit Safety Management Systems (SMS) certificate that can also be applied to a degree. The course of study is designed for current Vaughn College students, alumni and professionals who want to take a fast-track approach to SMS. The goal is to provide graduates with the theory and practical application for roles in the leadership, training and guidance of safety implementation and compliance issues. This certificate program can also be adapted for on-site training and provide employees with college credit.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed guidelines for SMS, the agency does not offer training. To address this need, Vaughn College has developed a course of study that allows students to graduate with this important knowledge, and provides corporate partners with training at all levels of the organization.

The FAA outlines Safety Management Systems (SMS) as consisting of four functional components that contribute to a safety culture, as outlined below:

Safety Policy
• Establishes senior management’s commitment to improve safety on a continual basis
• Defines the methods, processes, and organizational structure needed to meet safety goals.

Safety Risk Management
• Determines the need for, and adequacy of, new or revised risk controls based on the assessment of acceptable risk or implemented risk control strategies.

Safety Assurance
• Evaluates the continuing effectiveness of implemented risk control strategies
• Supports the Identification of new hazards

Safety Promotion
• Includes training, communication and other actions to create a positive safety culture at all levels of the workforce

Many aircraft accidents are the result of human error. Each professional who works for an airline operates within the context of their organization. If the organization is only focused on the bottom line, safety may suffer. A well-designed SMS is designed to mitigate those risks and create more transparency in an organization within all levels of the organization. For example, if a manager tells a pilot he must make a flight on time, and the pilot is exhausted, the manager is putting the entire plane at risk.

According to Dr. Pete Russo, Chair of the Aviation Department at Vaughn College, “SMS can help facilitate a company’s traditional safety program to a dynamic, organizational mindset where safety is a core value”.

Dr. Russo’s observation is particularly prescient in emphasizing the notion of an “organizational mindset where safety is a “core value”. This is precisely why development and implementation of a SMS should never be called a “project” or a “program” in the “Safety Promotion” process outlined by the FAA. Why is this? “Projects” and “programs” have beginnings, but they also have endings. Miscommunication of the strategic intent of the SMS, i.e., to effect a cultural change in how people think and what they value, risks leaving the impression that it is just the latest management fad that will come and go.

In his seminal article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”1, Dr. John Kotter of the Harvard Business School identifies lack of a sense of urgency, failure to demonstrate the benefits of a cultural change, and poor communication from senior management as being among the most important reasons why such initiatives often just fade away. While it may be true that “the hardest thing to change is someone’s mind”, cultural changes can and have been effected by avoiding these mistakes. This is particularly important in implementing Safety Management Systems: our lives depend on it.


1. Kotter, John P., “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, Harvard Business Review vol. 73, #3, May / June 1995

Dr. Maxine Lubner is Chair of the Management department at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology.

Dr. Peter Canellis is a Professor of Management at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology.

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