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Reflections on the “Why” of SMS

Updated: Feb 20

I have read quite a few good books over the last decade, but few have had a profound effect on me like Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. There is also a very popular TED talk by Sinek on the same subject, which is a short embodiment of the wisdom contained in his book. Now, as a disclaimer, I am not a book snob or incapable of being moved by what I've read, but it is rare that the message of a book allows me to ponder the thesis of the material in other areas of my life. The idea of an individual having a strong “why” is not a concept invented by Simon Sinek. In fact, Winston Churchill said “One man with conviction will overwhelm a hundred who have only opinions.” Additionally, there are some who feel the message Sinek is promulgating is basically snake oil that has been brilliantly marketed as a panacea for all organizational woes. However, the concept of the Golden Circle that Sinek postulates which puts “Why” in the middle and goes outward to “How” and “What” really resonates with me, especially when it comes to safety management systems.

Previously when I taught the IS-BAO workshops, I would tell the class that a deep-seated and impactful organizational “why” was important for successful implementation of the standard. In other words, if the organization was implementing the IS-BAO to save a nickel on aircraft insurance, to obtain a framed certificate, or to have hopes of a less painful SAFA check, that was not a strong "why" and that implementation and/or maintenance of the IS-BAO would probably fail. However, if the organization had a strong “why”, a conviction that they wanted to be the best, safest, most efficient organization and that the IS-BAO was just a “how”, then the organization would succeed not only in IS-BAO implementation, but maintaining the spirit behind the IS-BAO for the unforeseeable future. The power of a robust “why” could also be harnessed when implementing a safety management system as well.

When it comes to safety management systems, a robust “why” is necessary for the SMS’s success. If the organization is implementing a SMS to just satisfy an industry standard or a regulatory requirement, then chances are that it will fail to accomplish its purpose. It is important to state that the SMS is in no way the end all be all but is just a system to identify and mitigate risk. In the words of Dave Pruitt, who was an early advocate of SMS with the FAA, a University of Southern California instructor, the Director of Safety that helped Alaska Airlines get back on track after their fatal accident in 2000, and one of my key mentors: the safety management system is “just a way.” In other words, it is the “how” that is supposed to manifest from the “why”, which is to protect the lives of employees and passengers. However, in my opinion, we have been putting SMS in the sacred space of “why”, which is diluting the “why” we are implementing SMS and therefore leading to substandard approaches to managing risk in our operations. If there were a better way - an extension to a deep conviction to protect lives - to manage risk in high-consequence organizations than the current four component / twelve element, then it would be appropriate to adopt that methodology. However, the current SMS model is currently the best methodology to manifest the organizational passion and conviction to protect what matters most. Time will tell if this current approach remains viable and the most effective way.

So, while Simon Sinek - who admitted himself - did not come up with the concept of “why”, his illustration of a Golden Circle that explains the manifestation of the why, to the how, and finally to the what, is a great graphic of how we should approach SMS in the organization. Implementing a SMS for the sake of SMS becomes a perfunctory task with no meaning attached. We all have a desire to protect our business, our reputation, and most importantly our people. We need to tap into this deep-seated conviction - our “why” - and let the SMS be a natural extension of it.



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