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Sound SMS or QA Program?

I recently had a discussion with a former colleague about what drives “safety” in aviation. Is safety a by-product of a sound Quality Assurance (QA) program, or does a sound Safety Management System (SMS) fertilize the ground for a good QA program?


July 18, 2014
By Walter Heneghan

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I recently had a discussion with a former colleague about what drives “safety” in aviation. Is safety a by-product of a sound Quality Assurance (QA) program, or does a sound Safety Management System (SMS) fertilize the ground for a good QA program?

For all of you for whom the elements of a Safety Management System (SMS) is not old hat, Safety Assurance is identified as a key component, indicated as the third pillar of an ICAO compliant system. Specifically, Safety Assurance is “…an important monitoring function that allows the company to monitor compliance with regulatory, client and internal requirements. The Safety Assurance process monitors compliance with any company procedures that have been designed and implemented to ensure safe operating activity.”

Within this third pillar are such things as policies, accountabilities and KPI’s; management of change processes; QA; senior management buy-in; and review and continuous improvement. Quality assurance is identified as a sub-component of the larger Safety Assurance mandate. Safety – the identification of risks and the introduction of controls so as to minimize these risks to a level that is as low as reasonably practical (ALARP) – cannot be achieved if an organization does not hold itself to account. An effective safety system needs people to be accountable through active measuring and management of performance indicators. Risk is often manifested during organizational change so “change management” processes are important. Senior management buy-in and commitment and review of KPIs drives continuous improvement and QA provides the validation and confidence that the identified safety processes are clicking along, functional, and effective – and that the controls that have been implemented are being followed so that, again, risk is lowered to ALARP.

Reviewing the aforementioned items could lead one to conclude that safety is clearly derived from a functional quality assurance system. On point, I reference a panel from the European Conference of Ministers of Transport that also reached this conclusion in a 2003 report entitled, “Safe & Sustainable Transport – A Matter of Quality Assurance.” While specifically targeting transport by road accident and fatality cause factors, the report stated:  “. . . A culture of ‘Quality Assurance’ must be developed for public and commercial transport services . . . it is understood that individuals should play an active part in placing demands on society and manufacturers for safe road traffic.” A strong commitment from the individuals (employees) to place demands on society (employers) for safe road traffic (aviation operations). This creates some interesting parallels.

But what about the other point of view? Many successfully safe companies have strong leadership that demands safe behaviour, safe work practices and insists that safety permeates every aspect of decision making. Doesn’t a solid, top-down commitment to safety drive a company’s culture? When senior leadership commits and communicates a safety mantra that defines how it conducts its affairs, isn’t this the keystone to an effective SMS? When this leadership ensures that sound risk-management principles are in play for all phases of a company’s operations – growth, acquisition, and steady state – doesn’t this drive the corporate culture? This commitment drives safety policies and best practices, which in turn drives employee commitment. This commitment then makes setting KPI’s a much easier task and pride of ownership demands a sound safety assurance process.

Furthermore, with this form of leadership, it becomes much easier to drive the safety culture into the everyday activities of the workforce.  So, in this case, doesn’t quality assurance end up being driven by the safety system? I have written in earlier columns about active risk management, the hierarchy of risk controls and the need for sound safety management systems.

We both found the discussion to be illuminating in that either perspective can work in attaining the goal of achieving “safety.” We can ensure that our prescribed processes are followed diligently in order to reduce risk or, alternatively, commit, through unwavering leadership, to driving a company culture to ensure that everything is done to reduce risk to “ALARP.”

I will leave you with this quote from Jerome Lederer, NASA’s first director of Manned Flight Safety: “Risk management is a more realistic term than safety. It implies that hazards are ever-present, that they must be identified, analyzed, evaluated and controlled or rationally accepted.”


Walter Heneghan is the Vice President for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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