SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

3 Levels of Aviation SMS Operational Excellence

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jul 15, 2021 7:00:00 AM

Aviation SMS Structure Is the Backbone of a Safety Program

3 Levels of Aviation SMS Operational Excellence

The management of aviation safety is a shared responsibility among all levels (i.e., stakeholders) of an organization.

Top management has to set the basis for establishing

  • safety culture,
  • safety policy,
  • protections to employees, and
  • the structure for controlling risk.

Middle management is delegated with tasks to ensure the organizational aviation safety management system (SMS) goals and objectives align with senior management's organizational goals. And the actual work behind an aviation SMS' risk management processes happens at the ground level with the behavior of employees. Employees are safety performance monitors, remaining ever vigilant of hazards and reporting potential safety concerns as they are identified.

From the bottom up, every employee has his/her duties to satisfy operational safety performance.

Related Aviation SMS Performance Monitoring Articles

Aviation SMS Implemented across Entire Organization

Operational excellence in aviation SMS needs to happen at every level of an organization. Oversight compliance requirements have become increasingly larger and more complex. Furthermore, civil aviation authorities' oversight capabilities are increasing each year. Consequently, aviation SMS implementations need more efficient ways of being managed to demonstrate regulatory compliance.

Unlike traditional safety programs, modern aviation SMS requires documented proof to offer to oversight agencies.

If SMS risk management activities are not documented, then there is no proof that these activities happened. SMS documentation requirements and the required participation of senior management are perhaps the two most salient differences between modern SMS implementations and traditional safety programs.

The FAA and most other aviation oversight organizations now, or soon will, require most aviation service providers to have a demonstrable aviation SMS implemented. The level of effort to fully implement an aviation SMS varies dramatically based on:

  • Size of organization;
  • Complexity of the organization (different types of operations); and
  • Organizational goals and objectives.

SMS Effectiveness Directly Related to Data Management Capabilities

A recent study found that almost 50% of companies are using only spreadsheets and simple home-grown database schemes to manage all of their safety data. SMS operational excellence simply cannot happen with manual SMS data management processes, i.e., spreadsheets and paper.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using an Excel spreadsheet for issue reporting and risk management activities. However, it does bring to mind the importance of assessing how "developed" your aviation SMS' data management strategy aligns with your SMS' short and long-term needs.

A fully implemented SMS has considerable amounts of data to:

  • Collect from end users;
  • Store for both present and future risk management processes;
  • Retrieve based on end-users needs and security permissions; and
  • Analyze to detect trends and practice both proactive and predictive risk management processes.

An operator's ability to efficiently practice SMS' risk management activities directly correlates to the operator's ability to securely store and retrieve SMS documentation.

As an example, consider an operator's ability to generate income based on production activities. Operators that don't have efficient operational processes and modern equipment will not be as successful at generating revenue as operators that adjust and adapt to environmental pressures.

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Spreadsheet SMS May Be Best Data Management Strategy

If your company has more than 40 employees, you should be using some sort of SMS database to store and manage SMS documentation requirements. Otherwise, you will NEVER realize the promised benefits realized from a fully implemented SMS. For smaller companies, you can use spreadsheets. "Spreadsheet managed SMS" may be the smartest data management strategy for smaller operators:

  • with stable workforce (low employee turnover);
  • operating in areas with inconsistent regulatory oversight (CAA doesn't have their act together);
  • needing to demonstrate an SMS to acquire additional business (contracts requiring SMS); or
  • not planning for long-term operations in domain requiring SMS implementation.

Related Articles on Using Spreadsheets in Aviation SMS

What should be your SMS data management strategy? Which one is best? Do I really need an SMS database for regulatory compliance? Do I need an SMS database to reach the predictive risk management phase?

Let's take a look at three SMS data management maturity levels.

1 – Ad Hoc SMS: Manual Input

The Ad Hoc level of SMS data management is what approximately 50% of organizations use. The hallmarks of such SMS data management structure are:

  • Paper-based system;
  • Basic spreadsheets; or
  • Manual data management.

As said, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. For smaller operators who have extremely straightforward requirements, this would probably work well as a means of

  • collecting,
  • analyzing, and
  • acting upon data.

Moreover, for such companies, this method would be very manageable as the volume of safety reports are not overwhelming to manage. Furthermore, small companies are not expected to have well-developed SMS data management processes, as they are not required.

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But as companies expand their business size, so too does the size and complexity of SMS regulations and performance requirements grow. And let’s be honest, far too many organizations are using cobbled-together systems when they need much more efficient SMS tools to maintain safety. The safety liabilities for manual data management processes are:

  • Lack of scalability;
  • Time and work-intensive;
  • Lack of transparency (accountable executive has extremely limited visibility);
  • Difficult to identify substandard SMS performance in a timely manner;
  • Potential continuity problems when new safety manager takes over SMS;
  • Duplication errors; and
  • Inconsistent data structures.

As you can imagine, the risk impact dramatically increases as the scale of these problems becomes larger. Simply trying to manually manage and consolidate the relevant safety report and SMS training data can become full-time work VERY quickly. This may not be a concern for operators who have access to an abundance of cheap, qualified labor, such as India and China.

A small subset of companies pays particularly close attention to brand image. These operators always want to appear highly professional to clients and regulatory agencies. In these cases, a manual SMS data management strategy may not be the "low-cost operator" image you wish to portray.

Smaller operators that cater to the luxury, VIP market may find that an SMS database will serve them better. There is a bonus in these cases when astute safety professionals extend the SMS' risk management processes to other operational areas, such as quality and customer care. Modern SMS databases are scalable and are equally effective at managing customer care issues as they are at managing safety concerns.

Related Aviation SMS Database Articles

2 - Performance Optimization: Point Solutions

Analyzing document

Companies who do not have more advanced SMS data management tools begin to recognize their limitations, but not always quickly. These limitations become apparent by years four to six of their SMS implementations. In countries with poor or inconsistent regulatory oversight, this realization may never come. For others, the realization that they are not properly equipped comes mainly from these areas:

  • Audit findings (regulatory agency, standards body, or client audits);
  • Safety team realizes existing processes take too much time; or
  • Management is unable to efficiently monitor SMS performance; or
  • Safety team realizes that data management capabilities don't accommodate predictive risk management processes.

When operators feel the pain, and not before, they will move toward integrating their existing SMS processes with point solutions, or tools used to manage one or two of the following SMS documentation aspects:

  • Safety reporting solution;
  • Hazard identification and safety risk analysis management;
  • Auditing;
  • SMS training;
  • Management of change;
  • Setting and monitoring key safety performance indicators (KPIs);
  • Safety goals and objectives tracking; and/or
  • Document management.

Recently, for example, we were approached by a client who was looking for a stand-alone safety reporting system to aid in more streamlined SMS data acquisition processes. However, this operator was not ready for a fully integrated SMS solution (which would include things like auditing tools, a hazard-risk register, etc.). They were only interested in addressing one pain point, i.e., efficient, user-friendly safety reporting.

Hazard/Issue Reporting Poster

Compared to spreadsheet SMS, point solutions significantly reduce:

  • The workload;
  • Data entry and data management errors; and
  • Manual processes that so often plague makeshift systems.

Point solutions are usually very good at accomplishing one task or managing one area of the SMS.

When one considers the gross limitations of spreadsheets, a good point solution can:

  • provide a company with out-of-the-box risk management processes for a particular subject area;
  • greatly consolidate data into a significantly more manageable structure, and
  • greatly increase an organization's capabilities and efficiency to address the task.

For many smaller companies, a point solution will balance their ability to efficiently manage their organizational risk management needs, while avoiding the complexity of more robust, full-featured SMS database solutions. As the years pass, an operator may acquire multiple-point solutions to address separate pain points. The most common SMS data management areas addressed by point solutions are:

  • Safety reporting system (usually Web-based);
  • Risk management system (manage investigations, corrective actions);
  • Auditing (internal evaluations and auditing contractors and suppliers); and
  • SMS training (initial and recurrent).

Of course, the danger with using point solutions is that the information between separate point solutions is manually transferred, usually by:

  • copy/paste; or
  • uploading spreadsheets exported from another point solution export.

For example, in the case of using a safety reporting point solution, collected safety reports will need to be exported and managed manually in a spreadsheet or copied and pasted into another point solution. The process of transferring data between two-point solutions is a risk that needs to be handled carefully. Otherwise, a very large disparity will grow between the data in different applications, essentially rendering SMS data useless. Garbage in garbage out.

Moreover, user acceptance of multiple, cobbled-together point solutions may be lower because it requires

  • learning multiple software applications;
  • regularly working with different data formats inside each point solution; and
  • more time to generate SMS performance monitoring reports for management.

User acceptance of SMS tools greatly affects safety culture. When users don't use the provided tools, the organization loses the ability to improve system processes and to reduce risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP).

SMS software tools affect user acceptance and SMS participation levels.

Safety culture is affected by SMS software.

Safety culture drives SMS performance.

Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles

3 – Active Risk Management: Integrated Aviation SMS

Tow tractor pulling luggage carts airport

A fully integrated SMS data management strategy means that all or most of the important parts of an aviation SMS are integrated into one application. What this also means is that safety data is automatically shared and made available to all other modules in the SMS database (no transferring between different applications). Because the scope of such an application has such far-reaching implications on SMS data management, in general, it:

  • Necessitates following the structured workflow of the application;
  • Streamlines SMS processes;
  • Eliminates rote manual work;
  • Integrates all SMS data and workflows together; and
  • Standardizes the way the organization interacts with the SMS.

An integrated SMS data management strategy, such as provided by aviation SMS database software, provides the highest potential for aviation SMS operational excellence. An SMS database reduces so much of the rote workload through automated processes. Error-prone data entry activities of manually entering or transferring data are also greatly reduced. In the long term, an integrated aviation SMS solution is the most scalable and efficient.

Because of the complexity of the functional structure of aviation SMS, fully integrated database solutions are a positive but tangible overhaul of all areas of an implemented SMS. Of course, there are challenges with fully integrated SMS data management strategies as well. Namely, because they are so comprehensive:

  • SMS data analysis can become more complex, yet more valuable;
  • The learning curve of the application requires patience; and
  • It requires financial support from the accountable executive.

We have seen immature aviation SMS struggle when they initially “bite off more than they can chew” by underestimating the implementation requirements. An immature SMS may become overwhelmed when they adopt a robust SMS early on. They are not prepared because they have no experience of what is required and what a fully implemented SMS looks like.

Download Aviation SMS Implementation Resources

More mature SMS implementations have experience. They know where their pain points are. They are more apt to embrace a new SMS database and see it as their "savior" from all the pain and suffering they had endured in the early years of their SMS implementation.

One area of concern is that safety managers seldom learn the full capabilities of their SMS database. Based on a dozen years of experience, only 15% of aviation service providers formally train employees on SMS database software. Most operators use only documentation or online video tutorials.

Related Articles on Aviation SMS Training

Final Thought: What SMS Structure Is Best for You?

Aviation SMS Operational Excellence

As you can see, different levels of data management strategies entail very different SMS interactions.

For very small carriers with simple needs, they may be able to maintain an acceptable level of safety with limited SMS interaction. Of course, with impending FAA SMS compliance requirements, and the fact that smaller carriers statistically have a much higher incident rate, even the smallest carriers can benefit from at least using a single point-solution to facilitate SMS data management. In this case, the single most beneficial point solution will be either a safety reporting system or the risk management system. This will be determined by the volume of safety reports that enter the SMS.

Each aviation service provider will have different needs based on:

  • The size of their organization;
  • Their current aviation SMS data management capabilities;
  • Their current safety culture and SMS implementation maturity level; and
  • Organizational goals and objectives.

Most importantly, every organization needs to consider its needs in reference to the scalability of its current aviation SMS operational structure.

If your company has more than 40 employees, this is a quick indication that you need an SMS database. After seeing hundreds of successful and dozens of failed SMS implementations, I think I can justify that statement.

If your current SMS database does not perform, is not user-friendly, or does not offer good customer support, you may consider switching SMS database providers. SMS Pro can easily import SMS data from legacy systems.

Do you need an SMS database? Will it make your life easier? Watch these short demo videos to learn how you can benefit from using the SMS Pro database. Since 2007, SMS Pro has been the SMS Partner for aviation service providers around the world.

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Last updated July 2023.

Topics: Risk Management Software

Site content provided by Northwest Data Solutions is meant for informational purposes only. Opinions presented here are not provided by any civil aviation authority or standards body.



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