The Importance of Data in Aviation SMS
Highly functioning aviation safety management systems (SMS) always have effective data acquisition and risk management practices. This is not the case of most nascent SMS implementations.
Monitoring SMS performance and spotting safety trends are not at the forefront of most safety managers' minds as they begin their SMS implementations.
Early in this SMS implementation marathon, managers are focused on tasks that don't rely heavily on data acquisition, storage and organization. These managers rightfully begin educating themselves as to:
- What is an SMS?
- How will this aviation SMS affect our company?
- What is the structure of an SMS for a company of our size and complexity?
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SMS Data Management Not at Forefront in Early Stages
Initial SMS implementation tasks focus primarily on:
- Conducting gap analysis;
- Developing SMS implementation plan;
- Acquiring management support;
- Interfacing with regulatory agency (in most cases); and
- Drafting safety policies and risk management processes.
In these early stages of the SMS implementation, safety managers "don't know what they don't know." They are focused on the pressing, short-term assignment of implementing the SMS on behalf of the accountable executive.
These safety managers are understandably not considering future predictive analysis activities. Safety managers report to the accountable executive, and if you are like me, I'd be more concerned with pleasing the immediate demands placed on me by the accountable executive.
In every organization, the accountable executive is responsible for:
- Ensuring the aviation SMS is properly implemented and performing in all areas of the organization;
- Reviewing organizational safety performance on a regular basis; and
- Managing organizational resources to address substandard safety performance and audit findings.
Accountable Executives Need Data to Demonstrate Compliance
Accountable executives have a heavy responsibility. In some cases, they may face legal action and prison time when civil aviation authorities determine that they have been negligent in managing their aviation SMS. These are extreme cases, to be sure, but you may remember in 2016, the South American passenger airline ran out of fuel and crashed. This was the LaMia Flight 2933 that ended up killing 71 people.
The point we are trying to make is that the Accountable Executive needs data to provide assurance that the aviation SMS is properly implemented and working as designed. But this is not the only instance where data management plays a key role in an organization's safety performance.
Safety managers may consider data trending as a "nice-to-have feature" as their SMS matures, but in these early days, trend analysis is simply a "problem to solve once we get there." It is this short-sightedness that causes most aviation service providers to waste valuable time in collecting and storing valuable data that will prove useful in spotting trends.
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- How to Use Trending Charts in Aviation SMS
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When System Design Is More Important Than Data Management
While the great majority of SMS guidance is designed around the bureaucratic structure of SMS implementation, the basic fact is that every aviation SMS depends as much (if not more) on the bureaucratic structure as on data management. After all, an aviation SMS is a system, and in a system, there are many interdependent elements.
What I don't want to imply is that system design should ever become a secondary consideration when starting your SMS implementation. To reinforce this point, I want to be clear that EVERY element of the aviation SMS is important. Without every element of the four pillars, your SMS will never achieve the lofty ideal of mitigating risk to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). However, we must not discount the vital role of SMS data management in your SMS implementation.
Just some of the critical safety functions that data provides for aviation SMS include:
- Safety decision making;
- Updates to policies, procedures, risk controls, processes, etc.;
- Safety performance monitoring;
- Continuous improvement;
- Safety risk profile;
- Hazard identification;
- Reported safety issues' risk management activities;
- And so on.
The list is quite extensive, but you get the idea. Now, when we are talking about data, we are talking about four different types;
- Reportable occurrence data: required to be submitted per oversight regulations;
- Voluntary occurrence data: incidents that employees can submit to assist with safety improvement;
- Observation data: hazard identification in everyday operations; and
- Surveillance data: safety concerns that arise out of specific risk management practices, such as audits, inspections, etc.
Here are five best practices for data management in aviation SMS implementations.
1 - Standardizing Data with Common Names/Acronyms
Standardizing data is a critical task that you need to implement as soon as possible in your aviation SMS. Unfortunately, lack of standardization is a problem many SMS implementations run into later in their life cycle. Common problems stemming from lack of data standardization include:
- Data that is hard to manage;
- Data trend analysis that may be unreliable due to incomplete or wrongly classified data sets; and
- Data that is hard to mine to detect trends or determine areas in the organization in which to focus their risk management efforts.
Consider the following scenario (that we have repeatedly observed in real organizations). A mature aviation SMS has no standardization for issues regarding flight go-around events. Over the course of several years, different managers give such issues different names like, “Go around,” “Fly around,” and “Overshoot,” as well as several other variations of these terms.
Trying to establish any historical information and trends concerning overshoots will be very difficult because safety managers will need to track down these reported events based on many different search names.
Within the first six months, organizations need to have standard naming conventions such as:
- Prefixes for common issues to use in reported safety issues' title;
- A list of names that should be given for commonly occurring issues;
- A number-key associated with commonly reported issues that can be included in issue titles, such as Overshoot = 01, Bird Strike = 02, etc.
Compiling these standard taxonomies in a table will ensure that safety managers can easily look up the correct “code” and include it in the title of each safety issue. This is much more easily accomplished when using an aviation SMS database that has been specifically designed to address all of the SMS documentation requirements.
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2 - Acquire Best Data Collection Tools
Getting data acquisition tools is absolutely, critically important to your ability for data management. After all, no data – no data management. Here are the four tenants of best-in-class data acquisitions tools:
- Multiplicity: employees and public should have multiple ways or reporting safety issues, such as on a website, through email, offline reporting, through an app, on their cell phones, etc.
- Usability: Safety reporting tools should be very user friendly and not overwhelming to employees;
- Availability: the available safety reporting tools should be at employees’ fingertips wherever they are, regardless of whether they have an Internet connection; and
- Detailed: safety reporting forms should capture sufficient information needed to initiate risk management processes – enough to capture all relevant information but not so much information to make reporting issues a hassle.
Acquire your SMS data acquisition tools as early as possible. Besides a safety reporting system, these tools should include an integrated auditing suite that will allow your organization to audit both internal operations and your vendors/suppliers.
Having best-in-class safety reporting tools will help jump start your safety reporting culture and save you from having to implement a significant change management for new safety reporting process/tool later in the aviation SMS' life-cycle.
3 - Planning for Data Collection
Once data is reported, you need to know what to do with it. This is where oversight agency compliance guidelines touch on data management. Part of having a risk management process and safety assurance process involves having a process for handling data.
This includes processes for:
- Validation; and
Establish these processes and test them out early. The better and more efficient your processes, the better you will be at practicing good data management. Furthermore, your future data mining activities will certainly become more effortless and productive.
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- How to Organize Data for Good Data Analysis in Aviation SMS [Best Practices]
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4 - Ensure that Data Is Valid
Stored data needs to be valid data. There are two types of validity:
- That safety reports are relevant and truly safety concerns (or if you are using your SMS database to capture other types of reports, make sure that there is a purpose); and
- That data in the safety reports is realistic, reasonable and true.
Safety reports that enter the safety reporting system must be validated. Those that are not valid should be documented and discarded. Why? Because you don’t want your data watered down, skewed or complicated by irrelevant information.
Also, safety hazard reports need to be vetted for invalid information. For example, common marks of invalid information on safety reports include:
- Incorrect, missing, or poorly formatted dates and times;
- Poor classification choices;
- Wrongly checked boxes on reports;
- Incorrectly listed departments, divisions, locations, etc.; and
- Wrong reporting form filled for given type of safety issue.
Looking for these kinds of invalid information is referred to as a “reasonability check.” All reports should be heavily scrutinized for these mistakes, and corrected as necessary.
Risk management processes that don’t have a built-in vetting process for invalid issues are exposed to conclusions that are incorrect or misleading.
5 - Ensure that Data Is Complete
Concerning data integrity, completeness is a measurement of:
- How much data is needed; and
- How much data is available (for a given analysis).
If you have enough data for a given analysis, then your data is complete. But what does it mean to be “complete”? There is no single, best answer here, but there are several factors that will help you arrive at what “complete” means for you:
- How detailed is your analysis?
- How complex is your analysis?
- How many resources do you have at your disposal?
- What is the level of perceived safety or operational risk?
The implications of these questions involve an interesting revolving door:
- The more data you need, your more resources you need;
- The more complex your analysis (such as complex data comparison), the more resources you need;
- The more complex your analysis, the more detailed and specific information you need; and
- The more specific your analysis, the more resources you need.
So, do you find yourself having to constantly go back and ask reporters for more information?
Are you having trouble or feeling insecure about your classifying safety issues?
Such considerations will help you know if you have the information you need. Tracking your data in an aviation SMS database will be much easier than using spreadsheets. An SMS database will guide your safety management team through a repeatable process to help ensure that your SMS data is valid and complete.
Related Articles on Aviation SMS Databases
- How to Choose the Best Aviation Safety Database Software
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Final Thoughts on SMS Data Management
Peter Drucker was a famous management consultant who is attributed to saying that, "If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it." While I don't completely agree with this quote, I do not discount these important words. Let's take the case of the accountable executive that we referred to at the beginning of this article.
The accountable executive must remain vigilant as to organizational safety performance. Ignorance is never an excuse that can be used by an accountable executive. After all, the purpose of having an accountable executive is to ensure that there is a single endpoint to which blame can be directed when organizational safety performance suffers.
To comply with the accountable executive's explicit responsibilities, your accountable executive will need data to:
- confirm his suspicions that there are problems with the SMS;
- assure him that the SMS is implemented properly; and
- demonstrate that the organization's safety culture is aligned with his vision.
There is no way that an accountable executive can monitor SMS performance without data. Therefore, we see that SMS data management activities must not be overlooked in the early stages of your SMS implementation.
If your SMS does not have a coherent data management strategy, we can help. SMS Pro has been used by aviation service providers for more than a dozen years.
If you are needing help managing your aviation SMS' documentation requirement, please watch these short demo videos to learn how you can benefit from this low-cost, commercially available Web application.
Last updated in January 2023.