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The Importance of Connecting Your Safety Management System (SMS) with Your Safety Culture with Jim Francis

The Importance of Connecting Your Safety Management System (SMS) with Your Safety Culture



“When you center the Safety Management System on the worker and the worker’s perspective, it allows them to have more of a say in the objectives, the goals, the initiatives, and the things that you’re going to go do. It also really started equipping them and engaging them in the solutions.” We’re excited to have Jim Francis, Vice President of SMS Consulting at ENTRUST Solutions Group, join the podcast this week to share his expertise about implementing Safety Management Systems that lead to noticeable and positive change. Tune in as Jim uncovers how to connect your Safety Management System with your safety culture in a way that is relevant to the way your organization functions to reduce risk and produce the most meaningful and beneficial outcomes.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski. A globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have Jim Francis with me. He’s the VP of SMS Consulting at Entrust Solutions Group. We’ve known each other for a little while now. Jim, why don’t you share a little bit about your background and how you got passionate about safety?

Yeah, sure. Good to see you. It’s funny. I have a long history working for a utility, and I come with an engineering and operations background, and most of my career was spent on the compliance side of things. But naturally, when you work in a safety-forward industry in an organization like a utility, you naturally get into the safety aspect of things. My journey really began on the pipeline safety side, with a lot of compliance-related programs and things that we would do to try to improve the performance of our pipelines and reduce risk. Naturally, that connects you to the workforce and the folks that are actually working out there all the time. As my career matured, I picked up more opportunities to work in safety and safety management systems and all sorts of things related to risk and risk mitigation. It was a really good journey, and a lot of things built upon themselves. It took me forward to where I’m at today at the end trust Solutions group, where I’m consulting with utilities and others all over the country on safety management systems.

Sounds great. Let’s go there. Let’s talk a little bit about what is a safety management system and what the main value is.

Yeah. The safety management system is a, I’ll say, structural approach to reducing risk. So, you put a very formalized process and procedures in place to identify and manage risk, really from the worker’s perspective. There are a lot of standards out there by which safety management systems are built and constructed, and it really just starts to define the key elements and the things that really ought to have in place. You need committed leaders, you need to find ways to engage with your stakeholders, you need to find ways to identify and mitigate risk, to validate whether the improvements in the things that you’re making, to communicate effectively with people, to have a process to know whether or not your results are being achieved and the outcomes of your goals and objectives are being achieved. And really, the safety management system puts all of that in a well-defined, constructed approach where those processes all work it interdependently, and just to make sure the system is functioning in the right way and achieving what you wanted to achieve out of it, reducing risk ultimately.

When would you consider starting looking at a journey around a safety management system? Is it something you do early on? What stage? And again, it may depend on the organization that you’re in.

There are tools that, frankly, if you’re starting with something brand new, you could use some of the tools in risk management to try to understand, hey, what am I trying to accomplish here? But generally speaking, there’s no real well-defined starting point with it. It’s more of a question of how your organization is performing. So, let’s look at the results and the things you’re trying to achieve. So, are you having more safety incidents than you really ought to? Are you concerned about the way you’re operating? Do you have inefficiencies in the way you operate? Is your cost structure off? There are a lot of ties to the business functions that might be a trigger to you wanting to implement a safety management system. But ultimately, what you’re trying to do is reduce risk and improve safety performance. So, let’s start with the safety numbers. Let’s start with your charts, your injuries, your incidents, any fatalities, the serious things that might happen to you. And those are really good indicators of, hey, maybe we ought to look at how are we functioning as an organization or as a company to see whether or not we need to be building a safety management system to help us improve ourselves.

And so, you touched a little bit on different models that exist, ISO and Z10 as an example, different models that exist. Is it about the certification, or could you build one in the absence, essentially, of a desire to certify? And maybe what would be the considerations to say, I want a certification, and maybe which one I should take?

Yeah, you know what? I’m of the opinion that you don’t need the certification, and you really ought to not start with that, with the intent in mind, because I think when you start with the focus on, I need a certification, the drivers are likely coming from an external pressure. There’s a regulatory issue, there’s a legal issue, there’s some legislative thing that is driving you to that. Not that there’s no value in those. I think the value of a certification is having a third party validate whether or not the processes in your safety management system are functioning well. Really, the motivation really ought to be about internal improvement in the way you’re functioning as an organization and whether or not you’re driving the safety outcomes that you really want. What’s interesting about it, too, and this is a question that I get a lot, is, if I’m a small company or I’m a large company, is this thing, am I able to do it? Am I able to apply a framework around that? I think the beauty of the safety management system is you don’t necessarily have to do it all. You have to build it for you as an organization and what fits your operations, I’ve seen it where literally somebody can put every single employee they’ve got in a room together, and they can talk every single week.

And there are great advantages to that. And I’ve seen it where there are companies so large that that communication piece becomes challenging. But yet, their system can function for both of them very effectively.

That’s interesting. So, we’ve talked before in terms of how a safety management system can be an accelerator for culture. Can you give me some examples of where you’ve seen that become an accelerator, something that helps business performance on the cultural side?

I think back to my own journey in this, and I’d say it really began in the mid-2010s. We were struggling, frankly, from a cultural perspective. We’ve had to have somebody come in and evaluate where we were, the relationships between us and our unions, and some of those sorts of things. We had some bad policies, we had some bad processes, some things we had to get out of the way. That was led into us building our safety management system. Once we did, one of the beauties of the system and the approach we took was that we were now collecting risks and things that were relevant to the worker. And when you center their safety management system on the worker and the worker’s perspective, it allows them to have more of a say in the objectives, the goals, and the initiatives and the things that you’re going to do. It also really started to equip them and engage them in the solutions, which far too often, I think, sometimes management tips back, and they start to create all the solutions without contemplating the worker.

Too often.

Because they don’t want to pull those guys from their day-to-day jobs and the things that they’re doing. Then what do you see? You get the workers complaining about the new processes and the things that are in place. What I saw, what we experienced was a group of people who are suddenly like, oh, my gosh, they’re listening to me. They’re actually taking my advice. They are prioritizing the things that are relevant to me, and they’re asking me to help with the improvements. They’re asking me to work on the solutions for that. I literally saw guys chasing people from our quality assurance team and our SMS team down on the docks of the buildings trying to make sure, Hey, I got something I want to talk about. That thing was like, Holy cow. It was one of those intangible moments where you go, this thing is really functioning. It’s really working. It was largely based on that.

One of the criticisms I sometimes see around safety management systems is that it’s too much paper exercise. It becomes lots of documentation, lots of paperwork, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experience the employee feels. Tell me a little bit about how you can overcome that challenge so that it doesn’t become purely paper-based exercise.

I think part of it is making sure that you’re right sizing the system to fit your organization. As I mentioned before, it’s got to be something relevant to you and the way your organization functions. Even simple things like how are you going to engage your workforce in the conversation around identifying risk? The mechanisms to do so may not be some big fancy IT system that you’re trying to get somebody to plug something in on their laptop or whatever. It may be, Let’s just sit in the conference room and have a conversation. I think the important piece of it is defining processes in a way that your organization has resources that are dedicated to the exercise of it. The point of a safety management system is to reduce risk. When you take risk management as an example, most of the workforce doesn’t understand risk management. They don’t really care about what a risk register is. They don’t really care about all the processes and the risk matrix and those sorts of things, but you got to have that structure. So build that structure relevant to you and your organization and allow a group of people to facilitate it. And then you engage your workforce in the right way so that it’s meaningful to them. Unfortunately, and I think with any standard, there’s a compliance aspect of it. You have no choice but to have some of the paper pushing and the documentation and the record-keeping aspects of it. Because at the end of the day, you got to prove to somebody that you’re actually reducing risk and you’re in your racing on the right things. But I would say you build the processes that are relevant to your organization that are meaningful and then figure out where some of the other ones fit and how they’re related and whether or not you need something that’s really structured around it or whether you can leverage things that you’re already doing as an organization.

That makes sense. In terms of, what you talked about on the risk register, there are lots of different components of a typical management system. Where is it that people typically find the biggest value or something that they’re not currently doing that really drives critical thinking? You also brought up employee involvement in solutions. What are some of the areas where you’ve seen the biggest improvements?

I think there are probably three or four key areas. Now, one, risk management is the engine that drives the whole thing. But the moment you go into that, you’ve got to start engaging your stakeholders. The stakeholders are not just your workers but it’s also your leaders. The one thing that the system starts to do is it starts to connect those two groups of people into a common conversation. That doesn’t mean they’re always sitting in the room together, but they’re having a common conversation about the things that are most important to them so that, as an organization, they can collectively put their resources toward it. I think that’s where you see a lot of value in that the organization becomes a little more efficient in the way they operate. So, management gets excited about that. They start to see actually injuries and incidents, and other things start to decline. And so, there’s a cost-benefit and that thing to it. And then the workers see the value in terms of the way they start to function. So their processes are more efficient. They’re not spending nighttime hands out collecting data or filling out a form or whatever the simple things are because that becomes a meaningless exercise.

They really start to focus and narrow in on the controls and the things that are going to ultimately make their job a lot safer. Those are the values you start to see. I think those are some of the key processes around it. There are a gazillion processes that seem like they function within the system, but there are just a few of them that play together, and you just need to make sure you’ve got those well-defined, and you understand how to create those relationships in the right conversations.

I think the risk register is one that I see is often missing in many organizations. They could have good back-end elements in terms of involvement of the workforce but then not necessarily focusing on the reduction of the biggest risk. Can you tell me a little bit more about how an organization can improve on the risk register side? What are some of the key elements so that you get what’s the right risk I should be investing in and functions you want to see there?

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The register itself can be a simple tool. Most of the time when we work with clients to develop it, when I did it back in the day, it was just a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it contains the key aspects and the elements of it. Obviously, it starts with the definition of the risk. We always say to define it in terms of the worker. Let them talk. Let them talk about the things that concern them. And ultimately, you’ll figure out how to define that risk. And then, of course, the risk element, there’s a mathematical component to it. And there are typical standard risk matrices and how you start to measure the consequence of the likelihood of those things occurring. But what is important is to make sure that you’re tying actual metrics to that. So, if I said my biggest risk is related to excavation damage on a pipeline, there’s data that tells me or supports whether or not you’re improving or regressing in your performance around that. And you should be able to leverage that data to validate the risk. And ultimately, you have to have some scoring mechanism to calculate your level of risk, so you know, hey, I got to draw a line in the sand, and I could only work.

It’s a prioritization effort, is really what it is. And absent that, that’s what the risk register really starts to do. And ultimately, you start to connect the risk register and the items in there to the further evaluations that you might do through a bow tie analysis or the risk mitigations and the project you’re going to do to improve that. It just starts to tell a story for you, and then it creates the math for you to actually prove to your board or your other stakeholders externally that, hey, we’re actually making progress here.

And how do you handle something that’s an incredibly low likelihood but significant consequence? So just like I started out in aviation, a crash is an incredibly low probability, but the severity is incredibly high, and you don’t necessarily have a ton of leading indicators. Well, I shouldn’t say that. You have a leading indicator on drivers, but you can’t necessarily see if you’re improving.

It’s funny. Far too often, we spend all our time on the lagging side. You wait for the incident to occur before you, and you can’t afford to do that on a high and you can’t afford to wait for an airline crash or something like that.

Or a gas pipeline a burst and explode and take down the neighborhood.

Those are all the things we’re trying to avoid through the context of this. And that’s why I think that’s why having a model doesn’t just pick one attribute. It’s not just about whether somebody gets injured or not. There are other aspects to evaluating a certain amount of risk. It could be an environmental factor. It could be just related to the asset. If I had an asset failure, what would it cost me? It’s a reputational issue. There’s a whole variety of attributes that could be contemplated in your risk register, and you need to figure out the definitions around those. There are standard books and other things to give you a starting point for those definitions, but you make it relevant to your organization and the things that you do. And ultimately, there’s a governance model, and there’s an approach to making decisions around that. So, you present it with the data. Now, I will say the one beauty of a safety management system when you start digging in deeply, and I mentioned the bow tie analysis, the bow tie starts to look at what are those preventive controls to keep that catastrophic event from happening. And ultimately, you start to do your measurement on the leading side, which is within those preventive controls, what are the processes, what are those detection points, what are the things that you’re going to start to identify that might be triggered to that lagging incident occurring, which is what you’re trying to avoid.

So, if you can catch it on the front end on the leading side within the process, you can now go fix it. And spending time within that and trying to understand the connection between the risks that your workers have and the controls in those process points and those measurement points to those things gives them great power in trying to understand, hey, now we got an issue, let’s go solve it once again before that lagging issue happens.

Okay. So, we talked about culture and where you start in the culture maturity journey. How do you implement a safety management system and also make sure at the same time that you’re also improving culture? Because the two should be connected, but they’re not necessarily connected. You could implement a system that doesn’t improve anything culturally, or it could have some blind spots as well. So how do you connect the two, and what have you seen work?

Yeah. So, there are requirements within a typical safety management system standard to evaluate the effectiveness of it. And probably one of the more impactful ways to do that is through feedback. And in many cases, the standard might say, I got a very specific feedback mechanism or approach. You’ve got to find a way to engage. And to me, this is where you start to tie things like your auditing processes or an effectiveness assessment that you might do. But I think the most important piece or one of the more important feedback is a safety culture assessment. Because once again, we talked earlier about, okay, management puts a process in place, and how do the workers feel about it? And if you never ask or you never have the conversation about it. And to me, the safety culture assessment is one way to really get at, we are making headway. Are we making inroads into what we’re trying to accomplish? And it creates an avenue to try to get feedback from that. So, whether you’re doing just a straight assessment. I think, frankly, it’s the post-assessment conversations that probably get you the most value, whether those are small group discussions or individual conversations.

I think having opportunities to engage your workforce in those meaningful things. You should hope to see the results. I saw that at the company I used to work for, we implemented this. We saw improvements not only in our safety culture results, but we saw them in employee engagement results. The two very much go hand in hand with the culture of the company. But those survey results and the follow-up conversations, you get a lot of valuable insight into the way you’re functioning and how they’re engaged and all of the other things that you’re trying to push as part of your system.

I think from the cultural side, one of the pieces I’d say is, a survey is important, but I think where I see is really making sure you’re looking at multiple different elements. You’re checking, you’re watching how the work is performed. You’re focusing on some focus groups to understand what’s behind the themes because the surveys can hide a lot of issues. I can give you a very binary view. I’ll give you an example where people said, yes, I dislike the processes and systems, but it’s not necessarily that. It could be, like you said before, you’re not engaging me in developing the processes and systems.

Great point. I agree. When you ask somebody a survey, are they going to tell you whether or not the safety culture, do I not believe that I work safely? They’re always going to say I work safely. Almost totally. But I completely agree with you. It’s the conversations on the backside of it. You get different levels of feedback and different opinions there that really give you a better insight into the culture of your company.

I think the other element that I think is very connected is trying to get to, and I don’t see a lot of organizations do that yet, but to get to a very local level to start seeing at a safety commitment standpoint, so how the leader is perceived, how they show up and seeing the differences. It is a site. Then working on focus groups, maybe on how we take that actions, how do we take the right actions to address locally, because you can have a common culture, you can have a common system, but leaders have different personalities that show up differently and are perceived differently around commitment and not always aware.

That is so important. It’s funny you mentioned that. I’ve used the story where when my company implemented our safety management system, and people started to get it, and you intuitively knew the good leaders out there, but it was just a notion around it. Then what we saw was the good leaders were the ones that at that very local level were like, I understand the system. I understand how it can benefit me, and I’m going to actually start to execute it. They didn’t wait around for my team or others to push the agenda on them. They just took it upon themselves to go exercise it. Then they engage their workforce in a way. Once again, when you start to look at safety culture results and the feedback, their results are better than their peers. It was that engagement with the right leaders and the people to understand that the system was just something to help them, give them structure to help push the agenda along and to help drive change for them. But that cultural piece, the way those leaders act, really went hand in hand with that. So really important.

And sometimes, people have blind spots. One of the things I’ve seen often is around people saying, Yes, I prioritize safety. And in their mind, they’re saying that because they start the day talking about safety, they’ll have a safety moment. But then they’re going to reinforce, they’re going to give an attaboy to the person who got the job done, irrespective of maybe cutting corners, not consciously, not intentionally, but they give recognition to the wrong behavior. Or the worst I saw was somebody saying, Now, let’s talk about the real stuff as they transition from the safety moment to the other pieces. And those are pieces that then workers interpret saying, well, you tell me safety is important, but it really isn’t.

Yeah, that’s so true. I had somebody who worked for me, and she did an unbelievably great job of recognizing people for the right way. So, we would have workers being engaged in our system. And ultimately, they were the ones that drove out the risk. But we saw the discretionary effort around it. And so, when those things occurred, we were recognizing them in that way for the actions that they were taking for the right things. We were not privy to the production pressures and some of the other things. It was more about whether they were reducing risk, whether their actions were aligned to the kinds of things we were trying to work on and improve upon. And so that recognition went a long way for those folks to start putting pressure maybe on their peers and demonstrating that. And it was pretty powerful in some of those places. Even the frontline employees now, they were the perceived leaders around that within their organization. It was a great way and a very positive way to drive the cultural aspect at that local level.

And so, really, taking away these complementary elements between the safety management system and culture, things you want to drive and evolve in MRL, there may be some cases where you really only need a safety management system. And I think we talked about this before where if you’ve got 80 % turnover, 90 % turnover, including at your leadership ranks, in our likelihood, culture becomes a very hard piece to actually contain. And you need the structure more than ever because you’re just accepting that you have a rotating door, which introduces risk. But in other settings where you’ve got more stability, you probably want to do a little bit of both, and at least you have stability at a leadership level.

Yeah, absolutely. One can certainly support the other. And I do think, depending on… And the turnover is a great example because that should show up as a risk. That’s a huge risk. And that may be the one thing that you have to work on almost entirely in making sure, once again, you got the right structure and you’re onboarding people in the right way. Otherwise, you’re introducing way more risk from a safety perspective than your organization really can handle.

One could argue that if you have 80 % or you have a culture issue, you need to fix it first, or you’re going to see that nobody wants to play in.

Yeah, there is a bit of a chicken and egg with culture or the systems. Frankly, I think you need to just understand your organization and where you need to start with it. One may support the other, certainly, in that relationship there.

Excellent. Jim, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, obviously, the work that you do is predominantly around implementing, assessing, around safety management system. How can they get in touch with you?

Yeah, probably the easiest way is my email at [email protected]. Or check out our website at And there are connections there you can find me. You can find me on LinkedIn as well. Jim Francis, just look me up, and happy to connect and talk to anybody more about this.

Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Jim, for coming and sharing some of your background, your experience around safety management systems, and the value and really to get a better sense as to why and how you should implement one.

Yeah, thanks, Eric. Appreciate the time. Great talking to you.

You for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your teams, and elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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Jim Francis is the Vice President of SMS Consulting at ENTRUST Solutions Group. In his role, Jim supports ENTRUST’s clients and the implementation of their safety management systems and other pipeline safety programs. Prior to joining ENTRUST, Jim spent 30 years serving utility customers in various engineering and operations roles at Vectren and CenterPoint Energy.




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