Rotor & Wing International
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Keeping a Safety MINDSPACE

Creating and maintaining an effective helicopter safety management system requires an understanding of unconscious human biases - and how to actively counteract them.

Helicopter operators often use safety management systems (SMSs) to identify and control safety risks, with the word “system” implying a complex arrangement of integral parts working together like a machine.

Understanding an SMS means recognizing the role of corporate leadership adopting and driving a safety culture, influencing human behavior to act “safely.” The establishment of culture must have strong feedback loops into the company hierarchy from all employees. Corporate leadership must evaluate incoming feedback, improving its SMS through planned readjustments to meet emerging threats.

In a robotic world, we would all make perfect decisions, but of course human beings aren’t perfect and don’t always make choices aligned with SMS goals. The human element of an SMS is especially important when considering that the origin of the program flows from the top of the organization and thrives within a “just” culture, one that encourages safety reporting and process improvements without fear of reprisal. A just culture is both the basis and the fuel of an SMS.

As company leadership develops, deploys and champions the SMS, there are short-circuits in the process called human biases. Certain human biases exist on an instinctual, unconscious level, influencing our decision-making without our knowledge, and are challenging to remove by traditional educate-and-avoid methods. It is these biases that have detrimental impacts on the SMS and deserve more attention across our industry, especially at the organizational leadership level.

Some of these instinctual biases are captured in the acronym MINDSPACE, which can be used as a checklist to strengthen SMS policy and systems. The following is derived from a 2010 report from the U.K.-based Institute for Government.

(M) Messenger. People are heavily influenced by who communicates information.

(I) Incentives. People respond strongly to incentives to avoid losses.

(N) Norms. People want to be normal as viewed by society.

(D) Defaults. People tend not to change default choices.

(S) Salience. People focus on what appears relevant.

(P) Priming. People are influenced by subconscious motivators.

(A) Affect. People tend to avoid known negative emotional outcomes.

(C) Commitments. People follow-through on public commitments.

(E) Ego. People act in ways to protect themselves.

The MINDSPACE approach posits that behavior can be altered by changing the context of the decision-making process so that our reflexive actions defend against shortcut thinking biases that all human beings possess.

In a perfect world, aviation safety systems must be constructed without human biases. We tend to control obvious biases by passing laws against discrimination and other unwanted behavior, but biases still enter our decision-making process through subconscious, reflexive and evolutionary means. These flaws flow down into SMS development and administration, weakening just cultures and safety processes.

Using MINDSPACE to build a strong SMS involves the conscious architecture of behavioral choice contexts specifically designed around these reflexive cognitive processes.

MINDSPACE SMS development requires a competent safety champion (M), company-wide incentives to avoid personal and corporate losses (I) and a saturation of safety being the “norm” for the organization (N). Defaults (D) within the organization should be set to the desired safety conditions. Safety should be salient (S) with less emphasis on profitability and more focus on well-being. Priming (P) should be used to underpin leadership approachability and willingness to absorb emerging solutions. Affect (A) should be used to reinforce non-punitive safety-related reporting. The SMS should require public commitments (C) from all stakeholders. Ego (E) should be utilized to support the value if individuals put in effort.

MINDSPACE is not a cure all for SMS weaknesses, but may offer the aviation industry an additional tool to strengthen just cultures and heighten the effectiveness of our safety programs.