SMS, Schein and the Right Role for Consultants

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Consultants & Culture: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


SMS consultants don’t “do” Safety Culture

Client must inculcate the values within its team

SMS done right = all committed

Aerossurance, an Aberdeen, Scotland based firm which provides aviation advice to  clients around the world,  published the above linked article about outside consultants brought to “fix” safety culture. Citing the research of Dr. Edgar Schein[1] , the paper develops the following theme:

“Organisations are however often tempted by offers of ‘diagnoses’ from consultants promising to diagnose their culture or leadership and by implication, prescribe a ‘cure’.  There is something soothing in the idea that your organisation’s problems can be cured as easily as visiting a doctor.

That’s because Schein contends, ‘organisational problems are increasingly complex, messy and unstable’ and over reliance on supposed diagnostic tools ‘will at minimum waste time and at a maximum do unanticipated harm’ (p172).  He believes that while culture can be described and understood, it can’t be quantified.

‘…the most important work by the consultant is to help the client understand the messiness of the problem…[p179]

…and apply focused solutions that match the client’s real needs.’

As said elsewhere:

‘There are few management skills more powerful than the discipline of clearly articulating the problem you seek to solve before jumping into action.’’

This article stimulated some thoughts drawn from working with FAA certificate holders in setting up THEIR SMS programs. The BOLDED is meant to emphasize that, using Dr. Schein’s analogy, the process does not involve a 3rd party assessing your existing safety culture and then delivering the diagnosis.

SMS is not a plug-in machine delivered by the outsider. Consultants can share their experiences and help the client to focus on (1) its culture, (2) the process and (3) analytical methods. There is little value to this exercise until the airline/repair station/airport/ manufacturer has full INTERNAL command of all aspects of SMS. Unless the values are adopted by everyone in the company, the potential for identifying and addressing risks is not fully realized.

Everyone from the receptionist, admin department, ramp worker, pilot, manager, and even the FAA Inspector has a role to perform The CEO and the rest of the C suite must be as bought in as much as a line AMT. For example, a CEO walking through an MX hangar, sees a stack of pre-signed Return-to-Service tags, should ask the Inspector who signed them why and listen to the answer. The Chief Maintenance Officer and the Chief Operating Officer MUST attend every incident review meeting.

Consultants may use tools to assess the status of safety culture of the airline. It is not appropriate for the client to accept that product without questioning its assumptions and measurements. Such a tool does not have value until it is retooled to incorporate your company’s org design, to focus on weaknesses of your team, to push the strong elements to become even better

SMS is about decision-making. It is a decision-maker’s tool, not a traditional safety program, separate and distinct from business and operational decision making. It needs to interface and be considered with every business and operational change and decision.


SMS requires the organization to examine its operations and the decisions around those operations. SMS allows an organization to adapt to change, increasing complexity, and limited resources.

SMS will also promote the continuous improvement of safety through specific methods to predict hazards from employee reports and data collection. Organizations will then use this information to analyze, assess, and control risk.

Part of the process will also include the monitoring of controls and of the system itself for overall effectiveness. SMS will help organizations comply with existing regulations while predicting the need for future action by sharing knowledge and information. SMS includes requirements that will enhance the safety attitudes of an organization by changing the safety culture of leadership, management, and employees. All these changes are designed to help the organization incorporate all three forms of rationale—reactive, proactive, and predictive thinking

If the above steps are truly internalized, anyone from the outside will feel the safety culture; it is literally palpable. Another mark of a fully functioning SMS is that the work is not a burden: (a) because everyone is contributing to the effort and (b) having engaged in this critical mission, all recognize the value of that extra step needed to achieve the goal. Those, who fully comprehend that SMS will be tremendously beneficial to all employees and customers, regard what might be described as “extraordinary” as ordinary/fulfilling.



Right, Dr, Schein?


[1] the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Schein investigates organizational culture, process consultation, research process, career dynamics, and organization learning and change


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