Safety as a culture: Q&A with Mike Delaney

Boeing’s Chief Aerospace Safety Officer offers an inside look

January 18, 2022 in Innovation, Technology

SAFETY PODCAST: Click play above to hear from aerospace engineer Michael P. Delaney, Boeing’s Chief Aerospace Safety Officer. In this role, he is responsible for strengthening the safety practices and culture at Boeing and developing the company’s comprehensive Global Aviation Safety strategy.

IQ: How does a positive safety culture activate Boeing’s Safety Management System (SMS) — and advance the safety of products and services in particular?

MD: SMS really came out of the airline side of our business. It’s a top-down, organizationwide approach to managing safety risk, and it ensures you have effective risk controls that you can take action on. So in that context of the SMS, how do you make it successful?


Underlying that is a positive safety culture that has several critical elements. You want the organization to be informed and knowledgeable about the technical factors, the environmental factors, the changes going on.

You want the organization to be flexible in the way it can deal with issues as they come up and also make decisions that are substantive and take action.

You also want a learning organization that draws conclusions on safety that affect the outcome.

Then there’s the reporting piece, what we call in-house “speak up.” People can voluntarily raise safety issues in a way that the organization will respond and learn from.

And the critical aspect of that is the concept of a just culture.

It’s a balance between, on one extreme, a highly punitive culture and, on the other extreme, a culture that has no consequences. And what you really want to do is define where the line is. When you’re on the one side of the line, the organization’s response is to learn and adapt and get better and stronger and safer.

And if you cross the line, then there is a consistent behavior of taking action. And you really don’t want to blend those, because that becomes critical to enable people to want to speak up, to want to learn, to understand the risks and make flexible responses.

IQ: Diving into details — what is Boeing doing to demonstrate a commitment to that positive safety culture? In other words, what’s changing?

MD: We stepped up voluntarily into this SMS in light of some of the incidents that have happened in the company. We will always still have a compliance- and a conformance-based requirement of our regulation. But we’re now adding this additional Safety Management System piece, which will go with our quality management and compliance systems to enable us to unlock further safety in the operator.

Historically, we worked in a compliant and conforming environment to deliver safe products. And we always worked in a risk environment in continued airworthiness. But in this case now, by having an SMS and a positive safety culture that aligns with the airlines and industry, if there’s something that the airlines see as a risk, it may in fact be the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that can improve safety.

And we’re starting to see these relationships through this common language and behavior that enable us to talk with our airlines and take action that will improve the safety of the flying public in the commercial space based on actions we take in the OEM space.

IQ: All of the above, it’s only relevant if the people are on board. In what ways can employees themselves embody that positive safety culture and work together to make it happen?

MD: When you say employees, what I hear is “everybody who works for The Boeing Company.” Sometimes when we hear employees, we think engineers or mechanics. We don’t think about management, executives. To me, everybody, from Dave Calhoun (Boeing CEO) down to myself are employees, right?

It is a collective effort by our team to understand this positive safety culture and to think about the actions and controls we have that can impact the safety of the fleet.

And today we’re leading through commercial. But clearly this has implications to our defense and services sides. Having our employees understand this is something we get to do to make the flying public better, to make The Boeing Company better. These are not things we’re doing to our employees. These are things we are doing to improve the safety of the people who fly and use our products.

IQ: Historically, the industry has a strong safety record. And the SMS journey is intended to further enhance that safety across the entire industry. So where is Boeing right now on that SMS journey?

MD: The OEMs are just starting this journey. The good news is that we have people we can look at. Externally, the airlines have been on this journey for quite some time. Some of our customers use the same language around just culture, SMS and positive safety culture.

And then even better news: We have a couple locations in Boeing that have mature SMS, positive safety cultures and just cultures. And those look very similar to some of our big customers.

One of them is in Boeing Defence UK. We have been working with them and benchmarking them, using them as an example. We are going to learn from our own team, and we are going to steal shamelessly from our customers that are already down the line on this journey and really try to leverage it and connect it — connect our SMS and our risk register to our customers and to the industries and ideally to the other big players in the industrial space. That’s how we will move the needle on safety.

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