Is a Safety Management System enough to be safe?

State of the art safety management is an interaction of different disciplines. It would fall far short of the mark if we believed that we could guarantee the risks of the High Reliability Organization with management systems.

In the last blog I talked about the importance of Safety Management Systems in High Reliability Organizations. If they are missing or poorly established, major system failures cannot really be prevented. Boeing's failures on the 737 MAX are inglorious examples. However, when we ask the big question of what it takes to make our modern socio-technical systems reliable and safe, we must not focus solely on management systems. That would be too simple. Rather, it is necessary to keep an eye on the optimal interaction of different disciplines. In addition to the classic safety management systems, these include the safety culture, leadership-stile, the individual behavior of employees and compliance. In this blog, I will go into more detail about the relationship between the Safety Management System and Safety Culture.

The Safety Management System is the basis

In aviation, the original Accident Prevention Programmes have developed over many years into Safety Management Systems (SMS). Not so long ago, safety delegates reminded employees of the dangers lurking in the workplace. Poster campaigns were used to raise awareness, and internal safety instructions constructed the compliance framework. The credo of these programs: "If you follow the rules and if you make an effort, nothing can go wrong". Many serious accidents later and after system failures with severe consequences for people and the environment, we know that this credo falls far short of the mark. Safety and reliability had to be thought differently. This is how the modern safety management systems in aviation were developed in a process lasting many years. Since 2009 they have been compulsory for airlines by the regulator. A glance at the accident statistics shows that they are having an effect. In recent years, global air traffic has developed with double-digit growth rates. Despite this, the number of accidents has been continuously reduced over the years. It was not the lack of knowledge that originally hindered their development and introduction. Rather, they first had to gain acceptance as integrated management systems. It was an emancipatory tour de force that freed the topic of safety from the shadows and gave it the attention of management, which it deserved due to the business-related risk exposure. These systems have become an indispensable instrument of governance for companies operating in a high-risk environment and which have high standards for the quality of their services. Safety management today is a management task. And rightly so, because with a holistically integrated system, risk can be 'managed' and proactively kept under organizational control. The Safety Management System developed in the aviation industry consists of a risk management system similar to that of the ISO 31000 standard. However, it includes additional aspects such as safety training, and it specifically addresses the dangers of change. A well established SMS allows to manage the risks not only reactively but also proactively and predictably. However, it is and remains a tool in the hands of top management, which in itself is not sufficient to adequately guarantee safety. Among other things, it is dependent on the behavior of the employees, who are also willing to report mistakes that occur at work. However, they will only do this if they are part of a corporate culture that guarantees psychological safety.

The Safety Culture makes the difference

It would be wrong to see the safety culture as something that is good but not really crucial. True to the motto that hard security problems cannot be solved with soft power. The more we learn about risk management, the better we understand the importance of safety culture for companies and organizations for which reliability and safety are success factors or mission. Insiders are very familiar with this fact. It can be seen in the increasing number of studies that deal with safety culture and in the newly emerged desire of regulatory authorities to audit the safety culture in  companies in the future. This wish stems from the fact that safety management systems are relatively easy to audit. Whether the culture will be just as easy to check in the future remains an open question. At this point, it would be going too far to address all aspects of a modern safety culture. For the time being, I would therefore like to focus only on the element that links the Safety Management System.

Modern safety management is data management. This is because we have become modest in terms of 'system design' in the High Reliability Organization. We have understood that the systems we have developed have reached a level of complexity that we can no longer fully comprehend. We recognize that we are imperfect in system design and have learned that systems often do not function as they should according to the design plan. We have learned that system failures can occur even though everyone has done everything 'right'. This forces us to improve the observation of the systems significantly. We are challenged to get to the bottom of the 'real' functioning of the system by taking a close look at it. To do this, we have to collect data at innumerable points in processes and procedures, which give us conclusions about the functionality of the system. The observations of employees and experts in the company, who are confronted with the characteristics of the system on a daily basis, are of particular importance. They know exactly where processes resinate, where interfaces do not work and where hierarchies hinder the flow of information. Modern safety management, however, is particularly dependent on the reports of experts and employees. They often make unintentional work mistakes that should not simply be cleared from the table with the reproachful appeal: "If you had made an effort, it wouldn't have happened". Because such mistakes bring valuable systemic aspects to light. Aspects that are of great importance for safety management. But if, as an employee, I expose myself to the risk of being confronted with the inappropriate accusation quoted above when reporting a work error, I reasonably refrain from doing so. If the company's managers fail to establish and live a culture based on trust, the organization will have a hard time learning.


If a Safety Management System is to have its full effect and not be understood and handled as a compulsory exercise, it must be supplemented and supported by a consciously cultivated safety culture based on trust. It makes sense that the Safety Management System is set up and operated by safety experts, whereas the culture is entirely the responsibility of line management. As pleasant as it would be for executives to delegate safety aspects, they would be ineffectively managed without the cultural contribution of the management team. It is this context that has contributed to the emancipation of safety management in the High Reliability Organization and has made it an integral part of the management system.