What Are Leading Indicators in Safety Programs?
Leading indicators in aviation SMS programs are:
- The “input” of the program;
- Identify precursors that directly correlate to future performance;
- Identify technical or organizational weaknesses;
- Are underlying causes for safety success and failure; and
- Identify warning signs.
Usually, leading indicators are safety metrics of what is put into the safety program, such as safety training, safety meetings, created policies/procedures, or issue management. Leading indicators are a hallmark of proactive risk management. A useful way to think about leading indicators is:
- The frequency of something that is done (i.e., frequency of safety meetings);
- Or behavior that involves acting on the safety program (i.e., average time to implement actions).
In and of themselves, leading indicators are merely interesting metrics for better understanding your aviation SMS program. Where leading indicators become valuable is:
- When comparing to aviation KPIs; or
- When comparing to aviation lagging indicators.
For example, correlating the number of internal inspections (leading) with critical-risk reported safety issues (lagging) will provide the necessary reference point to assess the value of the leading indicator. Correlating leading indicators metrics well involves hunches, experience, and assumptions by aviation safety managers.
Can Any Aviation SMS Program Use Leading Indicators?
Usually, leading indicators are not adopted in aviation SMS programs until fairly far along in implementation. In fact, safety programs in phase 4 or completed implementation should develop leading indicators. This is because well implemented safety programs have:
- Well-developed historical safety data;
- Many implemented risk controls;
- Robust reactive risk management operations;
- Larger safety budgets and more developed risk management tools; and
- Reached the performance plateaus that can only be improved with proactive risk management operations.
Safety programs in early phases of implementation can also develop a handful of leading indicators, but in general their resources and time will usually be better spent:
- Implementing mitigative risk controls;
- Developing high quality reactive risk management; and
- Garnering support (i.e. financial, risk management tools, etc.) for the program.
A good idea for such programs is to choose 4 or 5 straightforward leading indicators and monitor them from the early phases of implementation.
Are Leading Indicators Different In Aviation Industry?
Leading indicators are more or less the same across all industries in the sense that leading indicators:
- Address precursors and underlying causes;
- Are the input of the safety performance; and
- Share common themes across all industries.
Such themes are things like:
- Employment metrics (i.e., average turnover rate);
- Promotional metrics (i.e., frequency of safety meetings);
- Incident management efficiency metrics (i.e., average days to close safety issues); and
- Bureaucracy metrics (i.e., % jobs that have checklists).
The difference across industries will simply be the “language” and the specific “thing” that the safety metrics measures, but in general leading indicators are addressing the same thematic things.
Where Leading Indicators are in Safety Incidents
To use leading indicators correctly, you need to understand what they are addressing. As discussed, they address the underlying causes of safety performance. But what does that mean? Underlying causes are the:
- Norms of the safety program;
- Existing attitudes and behaviors;
- Safety culture; and
- Quality if interactions between individuals, and groups (i.e., employees and management).
In the flow of safety events, here is a graphic that illustrates the place of leading indicators:
- Predictive risk management attempts to predict new hazards, risks and outcomes based on historical data and circumstances;
- Proactive risk management identifies inputs (behaviors, threats, etc.) that directly correlate to risk in orer to stop it before it happens;
- People interact with hazards, and the result is threats (hazards that become dangerous); and
- Leading indicators are metrics that help you understand those interactions so that you can prevent unsafe interactions with hazards.
Aviation Leading Indicators vs. Lagging Indicators
Lagging indicators in aviation safety programs are the exact opposite of leading indicators. Lagging indicators:
- Are the “output” of the program;
- Show past safety data;
- Characterize the historical performance of the program; and
- Often they are easy to measure but difficult to improve.
Lagging indicators’ usefulness is for seeing the performance of an aviation SMS program. Aviation SMS safety performance is the “output” of the program. Lagging indicators answer the WHAT of how the safety program is performing, but doesn’t necessarily answer the WHY of performance.
Leading indicators are used to answer the WHY of safety performance.
Examples of Great Leading Indicators
A few of the most “useful” leading indicators that most aviation safety programs can adopt without sophisticated risk management tools are:
- % Employees Who Can Access Aviation Safety Training in Native Language;
- Frequency of Safety Meetings;
- % SMS Training Courses Featuring End-Of-Course Assessment;
- % Employees’ Performance Review That Is Safety Related;
- % Employees With Over 5 Years Employment At Company;
- Average Turnover Rate Per Year;
- % Jobs That Have Checklists; and
- Average Number Days To Complete CPAs / Close Issues By Risk Level.
We have compiled a list of 40 leading indicators that will be useful and relevant for any aviation SMS program to adopt right away: