Classifications are the bread and butter of your SMS program’s safety data organization. Making safety decisions without well-constructed classification systems is like riding a bike with flat tires – you won’t get anywhere. In fact, one of the primary markers of a functional aviation SMS program (versus one that is a farce) is a well-organized set of classifications.
Yet as important as they are, we see aviation safety programs all over the globe struggle with building classification systems that:
- Are easy to navigate;
- Comply with standards of oversight agencies; and
- Provide specific data organization (but not TOO specific) that allows for meaningful data analysis.
The real implication of classifications is that they allow you:
- Understand your safety needs based on most common classifications;
- Understand how your SMS program is performing;
- Data mine the safety program for many different types of data; and
- Establish trends in safety issues.
Classifications are fundamental to the efficacy of a safety program. Programs cannot functionally persist or improve without them.
What is a Classification in Safety Management Systems?
A classification is a unit of organization. By “unit of organization,” we are talking about a short phrase that describes the safety issue. This issue can be described in terms of:
- It’s “type” of problem, such as “Aircraft damage in hangar”;
- It’s central issue (hazard), such as "Runway excursion";
- The central human component (Human Factor) that contributes to situation, such as "Overtime hours";
- The root cause(s), such as "Lack of flight training"; and
- Other factors, such as classifying the type of relevant procedure, policy, task, etc.
A classification is generally organized in a type of tree, whereby you have:
- A classification category or “system”, such as Flight Related, Ground Ops, Health and Safety, etc.;
- A sub-category within each category that further organizes different hazards within the category, such as Flight Related>>Landing, Flight Related>>Runway, Flight Related>>Takeoff; and
- The base level classification within each category, such as Flight Related>>Landing>>Aborted Landing, Flight Related>>Landing>>Rejected Landing, Flight Related>>Landing>>Unstable Approach.
Usually, classifications are organized into three levels, such as described above. Having more “levels” can easily become pedantic and unmanageable. Less levels tends to be vague and unhelpful in making decisions and establishing trends.
Organizing Classifications with Classification Tree
Classification trees, as described above, are perhaps the best organized into a classification tree. A “classification tree” allows you to expand and collapse each category and sub-category. This successfully condenses large amounts of information into a manageable format.
Compare this to something like a table. If you are looking at Hazard Classifications for example, you might have 200 or more classifications:
- As a table, this information would be the equivalent of about 4 pages long with small print;
- As a table, this information would also have much redundant text because every line item would include the name of the category and sub-category; but
- As a classification tree, this information would be about 10 lines long (minimum) to 20 lines long (category fully extended), or about the equivalent of about half a page (small print); and
- Moreover, classification tree has no redundant text.
However, having a classification tree means having a computer based product, such as aviation safety software or a similar product. Classification trees cannot be used in other mediums, such as Excel or Microsoft word based classification organizational systems.
How Specific Should Classifications Be?
One of the most important questions regarding risk classifications is: how specific should they be? Unfortunately, there’s no objective answer to this question. The best answer is that good classification trees are organized into three levels (category >> subcategories >> classifications) and are:
- Specific enough to be useful for making safety decisions and establishing trends;
- Not so specific that you need many, many classifications to capture the essential idea; but
- Vague enough to be useful for capturing various, similar situations.
For example, good specificity of classifications looks like:
- Flight Ops>>Wildlife>>Birdstrike;
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Wildlife on runway; and
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Rodent in aircraft.
You can see in the above examples that the classifications are specific enough to capture the essential piece of information, such as “animals” and “runway”, but not so specific that many classifications are needed to capture the basic idea.
Less effective use of classifications are listed below – and it’s probably the most common mistake (along with having classifications that are too vague) of using classifications in the aviation industry:
- Flight Ops>>Wildlife>>Moose on runway;
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Bear on runway;
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Deer on runway;
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Mouse in aircraft; and
- Flight Related>>Wildlife>>Rat in aircraft.
You can see that the above classifications are less effective because you need so many more classifications to capture the same essential information. Information such as which “type” of animal is better suited for being established in the issue description of a safety report rather than the classification.
For more helpful information, see these hazard classifications list which you can use as a template and modify to meet the needs of your organization.