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The Science of Change

On the heels of some personal change I have undergone recently in changing direction professionally, I want to address one of the key elements in successful Safety Management Systems (SMS) – the management of change. In my opinion, the level of commitment from organizations to a process for managing organizational evolution can be a key benchmark of their commitment to safety processes and risk management.


March 11, 2016
By Walter Heneghan

Change – it’s the one constant in life and in aviation operations. Every day is different: new customers, diverse weather, unique taskings. As professional aviators, most of us revel in the daily challenges we face in servicing the Canadian economy. But how many of the organizations we work for follow a discipline regarding change? In my experience, many of the 703/704 companies in Canada spend the majority of their time in “crisis management” when trying to lasso change. While crisis management skills are an integral aspect of successful businesses, those companies that spend most of their time managing crises rather than planning on controlled evolution not only leave money on the table, but increase their employees’ exposure to risk.

Change management principles were first developed in the human behaviour and psychology fields and initially focused on personal transitions including Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ seminal work On Death and Dying. The end of the 20th century saw this field evolve into the business community as the global economy grew more complex and managing organizational behaviour and change became more challenging. Large enterprises such as Royal Dutch Shell and other members of the International Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) introduced the Bow Tie as a risk management tool within the context of its change management paradigm and have required greater rigour from its suppliers, especially in aviation companies in this area.

So what’s the big deal? Management of change definitions vary but generally mirror something like this: A defined or structured process enacted to manage the risks associated with significant change related to aircraft operations, including key personnel. In practical terms, this just boils down to being proactive within our companies when it comes to making the big decisions. All too often, I have witnessed change being driven strictly by money or marketing. The marketing guys bid on new work and when they win it, an edict comes down stating, “Hey, we are going to work in the Amazon – make it happen!” This is followed by a challenge to get people, equipment, visas, etc. with little regard to having an objective conversation about the change in risk profile.

The IOGP Aircraft Management Guidelines require that effective SMS systems have a risk management process linked to an operator’s reporting system, quality assurance program and its change management paradigm. This requirement is not onerous. A change management process can simply be a flowchart or algorithm that identifies the need for a management discussion in times of change, with a risk assessment and a review of decisions taken. Or, it can be a series of meetings and risk assessments encompassed by a full Bow Tie risk assessment with written reports, deliverables, timelines, etc. The level of complexity is really determined by the senior managers in the company.

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Companies that adhere to an ISO 9001 or similar quality standard also must demonstrate some form of change management discipline. In fact, the recently revised standard ISO 9001:2015 specifically requires that any change to the quality management system must be “carried out in a planned and systemic manner.” The important piece in this entire discussion is quite simple. Effective companies make a commitment to following a pre-determined, fit-for-purpose process to address the additional risk introduced into the company when there are major changes in the business model, personnel complement or operations. They recognize that:

  • the change they are undertaking must be realistic, achievable and measurable
  • that the commitment from leadership is unwavering; that all levels within the company are engaged
  • that risk is addressed at each step in the process and that the change management thought process becomes an integral part of how the company does business.

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll’s Chesire Cat: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will do.” Manage change and thereby manage risk. And isn’t that the business we are in?


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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