Why Culture Beats Compliance In Safety

July 30, 2019

Aviation safety systems are among the most sophisticated in the world. Maybe the folks that manage nuclear stockpiles have better practices (we’re happy if they do), but otherwise aviation safety procedures are the envy of the world - looked up to and studied by everyone from the medical community to heavy industry.

Yet nobody improves by resting on their laurels, and flight safety thinking continues to evolve. So here are a few thought-starters for you on one way that aviation safety has become even better lately: by moving beyond mere compliance and in to culture.

So what do we mean by culture - and what makes it better?

Bear with us a moment while we tell you some things you already know.

Globally, aviation safety is overseen by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Underneath the ICAO sit national or federal-level aviation bodies which lay out guidelines for managing safety rules and procedures. Key among these are the rules for running a State Safety Programme, which outlines how operators should create a Safety Management System (SMS).

Now, the format for SMS documentation is far from rigidly prescribed. The way in which a flight operator compiles its SMS is usually flexible according to their size and complexity - and that’s a good thing. Yes, an SMS must detail systems for:

  • Hazard identification and risk management.
  • Safety targets and reporting processes.
  • Procedures for audit, investigations, and remedial actions.
  • Safety education

Yet the critical variable, in our view, is how an SMS is applied.

And that comes down to culture.

Certainly, the formal structure of an SMS, as it’s laid out in New Zealand for example, requires an operator to describe how the SMS itself will be supported and disseminated. But there’s a long way between lip and cup, as it were, when it comes to merely demonstrating SMS compliance on paper - and keeping one alive within the culture.


In short: how do you ensure your safety culture is more than just a document in a drawer?

Growing a living culture of safety in your organisation - one that’s championed by everyone from the CEO to the cafeteria guy - takes more than just buying products or ticking boxes.

A living safety culture should empower everyone in your company and make safety the responsibility of everyone rather than just a handful of management-level whip-crackers. Take this made-up scenario as an example.

So let’s say Steve - a confident pilot with a big personality and lots of social capital - makes a safety shortcut that leaves Carol uncomfortable.

Now Carol is quieter and lacks Steve’s expertise. Which is probably why when Carol raises the issue, Steve just laughs it off.

Ultimately that sort of thing is hard to stop happening. But what you want is for Steve and Carol to both happily raise it as a matter of course in the next (regular) safety meeting, all without Carol being made to feel like she is telling Steve off.

Otherwise you risk an accident of the ‘Swiss cheese’ variety, where all the holes line up. You know the sort of scenario well: the aircraft doesn’t crash because there’s a cockpit fire. And the aircraft doesn’t crash because there’s a cockpit fire and the extinguisher is empty. The aircraft doesn’t even crash because there’s a cockpit fire and the extinguisher is empty because Steve’s been using it to blow leaves off his car windscreen. No. Ultimately, the crash occurs because all of those things happen, yet the culture was such that when Carol spotted the issue she didn’t feel she could raise it openly and be heard.


The practical part - how do you grow a safety culture?

That’s certainly the $10 million question - and the answer can begin with something as simple as making it part of your daily stand-up. Start the habit of asking, at the end of each meeting, for two short debrief points from everyone: “Okay everybody, let’s go round in a circle: What went right yesterday / last week / last trip - and what would you do differently?”

Brevity is key here - and so is making it compulsory. You want this question to be so familiar that it happens even when you’re not present in the meeting - and you want the follow-up to always be “okay, does anything from that round need to be escalated as a safety issue?”

That’s just one of many simple ways to encourage a safety culture that empowers your staff, and keeps the valuable contents of your SMS alive - though there’s certainly lots more that could be said. However at this point we’d be more interested to hear your thoughts on the topic. How does your organisation keep safety alive in the culture?

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