Safety Manager Dilemma: Deciding Which SMS Software Solution?
Modern aviation Safety Management System (SMS) database software provides
- safety reporting system;
- full-featured investigation tools;
- corrective and preventive action tracking;
- proactive hazard analysis;
- hazard register;
- auditing system;
- risk management processes; and
- much more to address SMS documentation requirements.
Safety managers are not data management experts. So how does a safety manager determine which aviation SMS software will achieve organizational goals without breaking the bank?
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The best aviation SMS solutions are specifically designed for an aviation application and are flexible enough for multiple industry segments, including:
- Aviation maintenance organizations (AMOs or MROs);
- Air Traffic Control (ATC);
- Fixed Based Operators (FBOs); and
- Flight schools.
Airline SMS Same Requirements As Airport SMS Same As MRO...FBO...
A common misconception is that an airport SMS is different from an airline SMS. Or an executive from an aviation maintenance organization may have concerns that his risk management processes won't align with an airline's SMS, which has originally gotten all the attention, especially in the United States. The requirements and elements for an airline SMS are the same as for an airport or aerodrome SMS.
There may be some operational data sources that are distinct for each industry segment type, but SMS requirements are the same. All aviation SMS follow the four ICAO components or pillars. And the SMS risk management processes are the same, such as when you want to add or change a system:
- System description;
- Systems analysis and design;
- Proactively identify hazards (Safety risk analysis);
- Identify existing risk controls;
- Risk assessment;
- If the risk is not acceptable, add more risk controls to mitigate risk, otherwise,
- Implement and monitor.
If you are not undergoing management of change process, you will be simply monitoring operations as you initially implement the SMS. You don't need to go through a laborious systems analysis on existing systems in the early stages of SMS implementation. That would be death by documentation. What I'm getting back to is that SMS risk management processes that are effective for one aviation industry segment are good enough for another, as long as you both follow sound safety risk management (SRM) and safety assurance (SA) processes.
- Provide hazard identification training;
- Maintain safety reporting system;
- Identify hazard or have a minor incident;
- Assess and investigate;
- If risk isn't acceptable, mitigate;
- Continue to monitor.
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As your SMS implementation matures, you will soon have some very useful data if you have the means to categorize it and represent the data in a meaningful way for management's decision-making processes. If you have more than 100 employees, an SMS database is not only a great time saver for the lone safety manager. Using SMS software designed to specifically address SMS requirements, the safety manager will have time to focus on other SMS-related tasks, such as:
- Safety newsletters;
- Safety surveys;
- Lessons learned to put into the Lessons Learned Library;
- SMS training; and
- Monitoring SMS performance with the accountable executive.
When a company has more than 100 employees, spreadsheets won't cut it anymore. Spreadsheets even in companies with 40 or 50 employees are simply "hell" to manage and collate useful reports. You know what it's like. You have a spreadsheet for each activity, such as:
- Safety reports;
- Safety training documentation;
- Hazard register;
- Audit findings;
- ERP checklists;
- Emergency drills documentation;
- Safety goals and objectives;
- Management of change documentation;
- Key performance indicators; and
- Call sheets.
Related Articles on Using Spreadsheets in Aviation SMS
- 5 Things Spreadsheets Can't Do for Your SMS
- Spreadsheets vs Software for Aviation Safety Management
- See How Spreadsheet Not EASA Compliant Aviation Hazard Reporting Database
Do these spreadsheets look familiar? Do you have more than this? Probably. These are enough for the safety manager to scream, "just make this documentation nightmare at least manageable!"
On top of all this, the safety manager needs to regularly monitor the performance of the SMS to ensure it is performing as designed. How do you do that with spreadsheets? This is a scary situation and fraught with risk, especially for the accountable executive who wishes to see a return on his investment.
When You Don't Need Aviation SMS Software
Maybe the accountable executive doesn't expect a return on investment. I was saddened to think that upper management or the board of directors believes the SMS is just another one of those "necessary fixed costs" needed to keep the operating certificate. In this case, you may be fine with spreadsheets. This type of management is content with a "paper SMS," where you just "check the box" to achieve a particular business aim, whether that is:
- Maintain the operating certificate;
- Secure a contract with a company requiring an aviation SMS;
- Operate to a foreign country; or
- Being able to say you have an SMS to put on your Website to placate customers and prospective customers.
This is a valid business case to not sink too many resources into maintaining the SMS. The paper SMS is a short-term business strategy. Smaller operators seem to get away with a paper SMS for many years before regulatory agencies start demanding a higher level of "demonstrable SMS performance."
When SMS Software Comes in Need
Smaller companies with fewer than 50 employees can benefit from SMS software when there is high employee turnover. Higher employee turnover means more SMS training documentation, but when the employee turnover is the safety manager, SMS software is the accountable executive's insurance policy. Imagine the sick feeling the accountable executive feels when he can't find the spreadsheets the previous safety manager had on his laptop.
Or better yet, a not uncommon scenario is where the safety manager keeps all SMS documentation on his personal laptop because the accountable executive didn't want to spend $3,500 a year to keep the SMS data in the cloud, managed by professional SMS subject matter experts. SMS software provides continuity when management changes.
SMS software also affects safety culture, either positively or negatively. If you don't believe me, ask WBAT users. WBAT is the once-free safety reporting system funded by the FAA. They got operators to give them their data and in exchange, operators got a safety reporting system that was not user-friendly. I did hear of one positive report from a WBAT user about four years ago, but that was the only positive review in over a dozen years. In short, the SMS software your company chooses will affect your safety culture.
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Which Software Fits Us - Too Many Choices
Safety managers today are being bombarded by mountains of conflicting information and beautiful websites promising their "brand X" will:
- solve all your SMS data management needs; and
- help you comply with the ICAO-mandated SMS requirements.
Safety managers want to implement SMS in the fastest and most economical manner possible. They may not have time to focus on software when they are trying to learn how to implement an SMS. However, this is a trap that many unsuspecting safety managers fall into. They see pretty pictures, but not much documentation on the product. Why is this?
Why do some SMS software companies only put out a few bullet points of information next to a pretty picture? Most likely the software is retrofitted white-label software that was originally designed for another industry or another purpose. Another reason for few details about the SMS software on marketing websites is because they are not the original developers with the required subject matter expertise, but aggregators of multiple-point solutions. A point solution is a piece of software designed for one particular purpose, such as:
- Safety reporting system for a quality management system;
- Auditing system; and
- Learning management system.
Aggregators search for aviation software to integrate into a single platform and then relabel the new software under their own brand. You may end up with a moderately effective system, but the integrated "systems" may not seem intuitively connected, or you don't have access to consistent reporting interfaces. There are some of these aggregated systems being used, such as what you would typically see with Sabre. Some of the workflows will seem clunky or the system will lack the aviation SMS "smell" in lingo used, such as labels.
One of the challenges of the "systems aggregators" is to maintain subject matter expertise in-house. There is a higher employee turnover, so the business is not as stable as a software shop that develops, maintains, and markets its own SMS software, such as SMS Pro. When the developers have SMS subject matter expertise, and they are also supporting the SMS software, you can expect to have:
- better customer support;
- a more flexible software system that can be configured to client requirements; and
- more frequent upgrades due to development costs are included in support.
Another type of software shop may create the software, but sell a different type of software system to different industries, such as:
- Food and drug;
- Chemicals and Mining;
- Petroleum and gas; and
Software that is trying to be all things to all things will probably do a mediocre job of managing SMS requirements. Also, time to integrate or configure the system will usually take longer than two weeks, which is what it takes to implement SMS Pro and start collecting safety report data from employees.
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Choosing Software to Address SMS Documentation Requirements
Most aviation safety managers are "aviation professionals" first and "safety professionals" second. It is rare to find an aviation safety manager who is also an IT professional. Once a safety manager chooses aviation SMS software, he is stuck with it for some time. Switching systems requires:
- considerable time;
- management support;
- potentially more financial resources;
- employee training on new system; and
- ability for an organization to adapt to change.
Therefore, since adopting new SMS software is similar to turning an oil freighter, safety professionals must be informed before selecting their SMS management software.
The wrong choice can cost a lot of time and money, and potentially put someone's job at risk.
Definition of Aviation SMS Software
Aviation SMS software is software that usually sits on a database to collect, organize and retrieve SMS data. The "front end" is the user interface that displays
- graphs and
- tables for users to interact with.
SMS software allows users to perform SMS tasks using predefined workflows as developed by safety management professionals. Some SMS software have more than a dozen years of iterative software development support applied to the workflows. It is no wonder why some of these systems cost more than one million dollars to develop, support, and continually mature in the risk management workflows, just as an SMS matures.
Aviation SMS software saves time. Furthermore, the software assures top management that industry-accepted procedures can be brought in-house. This saves the company from hiring SMS subject matter experts and software engineers to develop the SMS software in-house.
So what do you look for if you are ready to acquire SMS software?
"Web-Based" Aviation SMS Software Should Be at the Top
Unless you are a very small operator with fewer than 20 or 30 employees with a stable workforce, you should make sure that your aviation SMS solution is either Internet or Intranet-based. This means your users will be accessing the SMS software through a Web browser, such as an iPad, iPhone, or desktop browser. Furthermore, the SMS application should be compatible with all modern Web browsers, such as:
- Internet Explorer;
- Firefox; and
The SMS software should be user-friendly. If you operate in low bandwidth areas or areas without stable Internet connectivity, offline SMS software has become available. For example, SMS Pro has offline capabilities in:
- Safety reporting system; and
- Auditing system.
User-friendliness is important to safety culture. Your hazard reporting metrics are dependent on the safety reporting culture. Your safety reporting culture is dependent on:
- Safety policy;
- Non-punitive reporting policy; and
- User-friendly safety reporting system.
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Quick Win for Safety Managers to Earn Top Management Support
The best Web-based aviation SMS tools allow aviation service providers to not merely manage safety reports. Look for a system allowing the integration of these other systems. Encourage employee reporting of other areas of concern to maximize the utility from the SMS. Capture and run various types of concern through the risk management processes, including:
- Environmental; and
SMS is an opportunity for aviation service providers who sincerely want to improve business processes to become the most profitable. SMS is a process of continuous improvement. The smart safety manager and accountable executive take this "SMS requirement" and turn it into an opportunity to add financial value to operations management.
Aviation SMS Software Must Address Regulatory Requirements
Managing a wide variety of "safety issues" requires a flexible risk management system. Your reported issues will vary not only by "type" but also by severity. After all, routine issues will never require in-depth investigations with a complex root cause analysis workflow.
To be most effective, all minor incidents and close calls must be reported and documented. This is most important in order to delay "The Accident." By using these minor incidents and close calls for risk management practice, you are continually improving the system and reducing risk to as low as reasonably practical.
The problem with "Spreadsheet SMS" is that there is no sustainable process to collect, store and retrieve safety data when you want employees to report EVERY suspicious activity or hazard. Minor incidents may not seem like much to the employee, but employees don't see the big picture. They only see their "minor incident" or their "almost minor incident" or the "almost major incident" that they don't want anybody to know about.
A spreadsheet SMS is a disaster waiting to happen when the accountable executive expects results. Again, when accountable executives only want a "paper SMS," then they are not expecting much.
Depending on your operation type, you may be serving two SMS taskmasters. A common scenario is an airline that both wants IATA accreditation and also needs to comply with regulatory SMS requirements. Standards bodies such as IATA, Flight Safety Foundation, and IS-BAO benefit aviation service providers by assuring their prospective clients in foreign countries of some semblance of an SMS.
You may have noticed I said "some semblance of an SMS." I say this rather loosely or glibly. Many operators have passed these audits that are not worthy. When a safety manager tells me that their airline is IATA certified, and the employees know nothing about their SMS, something is wrong with the "SMS auditing game."
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Ultimately, depending on your requirements the risk management framework in the SMS software needs to align itself based on advisory material from:
Efficiency Using Web-Based Aviation SMS Tools- Goal #2
Let's call "satisfying regulatory SMS requirements" goal #1 when choosing an aviation SMS software solution. If you can improve operational efficiency and save money while satisfying a regulatory requirement, then this should be "goal #2."
Integrated SMS solutions can help facilitate aviation operations by:
- Increasing the efficiency of business processes using proactive and predictive risk management processes;
- Improving service delivery to meet goals and objectives;
- Reducing the number of systems to manage SMS requirements; and
- Improving operational and management reporting for more timely decision-making.
Web-based SMS applications facilitate information sharing across the entire company, regardless of whether employees are stationed at one location or scattered across the globe.
Web-based SMS solutions use complex databases to store and retrieve data from SMS activities. These databases are accessed using secure, modern Web pages. The entire solution consists of:
- Secure database;
- Custom Web pages on a secure, hardened Web server;
- Email server to send alerts and overdue status notifications; and
- Programming logic.
The above architecture is called a "Web application," in the IT world. SMS Web applications allow
- easy, real-time report generation,
- automated alerts,
- data access permissions based on roles; and
- varying levels of data transparency based on organizational culture.
Modern Web-based SMS software also communicates securely with third-party applications, such as
- crew resource management databases,
- flight scheduling software,
- ASAP and ASIAS data repositories; and
- flight data monitoring applications.
Basic Features for Aviation SMS Solutions
Whenever safety managers look for aviation SMS software, they must first consider:
- Budget; and
First off, everyone has the same need. See Goal #1, which is satisfying the ICAO requirements outlined in Doc. 9859 is the Safety Management Manual (SMM). If you already have a SharePoint application, you may not need document management features. By understanding SMS requirements, you will be able to identify your basic needs.
If you don't understand the requirements, I highly recommend reviewing a gap analysis checklist. The gap analysis is an activity performed early on in the SMS implementation to guide safety teams as to what gaps the aviation service provider needs to fill to have a compliant SMS, based on the gap analysis model provided. The gap analysis is a great educational tool for not just safety managers, but for the accountable executive as well. The accountable executive must understand the scope of his responsibilities to the SMS.
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Accountable Executive Needs to Monitor SMS Performance
Every accountable executive is responsible for assuring the proper implementation of the aviation SMS. Not only does the accountable executive need to be aware of "what is a proper SMS implementation," but they need to know how to determine whether the SMS performing in all areas of the organization. This is another responsibility that requires a regular review of organizational safety performance. This will be more difficult using spreadsheets or a cluster of point solutions.
When there are problems with the SMS, the accountable executive is expected (as he is responsible) to direct actions necessary to address substandard safety performance. The gap analysis is an excellent educational resource besides being useful to identify gaps in an SMS implementation. You may want to review the gap analysis with the accountable executive whenever you get push-back (resistance) on the aviation SMS software budget. Ask the accountable executive how he wishes the SMS data to be managed. Do you think he will say "spreadsheets?"
In the ideal world, all your SMS data management tools will be housed in one system and one enterprise-grade database. This certainly makes your life easier when SMS auditors come to inspect.
Minimum Requirements for Aviation SMS Software
At the heart of every SMS application is the
- hazard/safety reporting system; and
- risk management framework.
This is the bare minimum to expect when searching for SMS software.
The safety reporting system is used by employees, contractors, and vendors to submit safety reports to the SMS. As reports come into the reporting system, email notifications are sent out to:
- reporter (automatic "thank you for reporting" and feedback mechanism for tracking safety report);
- safety team (alerting them of the new report).
The safety reporting system is almost as important as the safety policy for encouraging healthy safety reporting metrics. When your safety reporting system is cumbersome and doesn't work, then you should not expect much safety reporting activity.
Related Aviation Safety Reporting Systems Articles
- What Is Missing Most in Aviation Safety Reporting Systems?
- How to Make Safety Reporting Forms for Aviation SMS - with Resources
- How to Develop Healthy Safety Reporting Cultures in Aviation SMS
Besides the safety reporting system, you will have the risk management tools. This software collects and categorizes SMS data for later data analysis. Furthermore, the risk management processes ensure that repeatable tasks are completed each time a safety report or an audit finding is treated using the SMS software's risk management features. Basic features include:
- Drafting a risk statement;
- Performing risk assessment using a risk matrix;
- Assigning the safety report to the department manager with risk acceptance authority;
- Managing and tracking corrective and preventive actions (CPAs);
- Classifying the reported issue;
- Setting and tracking key performance indicators;
- Sending and documenting correspondence with regulatory agencies (for mandatory reportable incidents);
- Managing photos, audio, video, and other documents related to the reported safety issue;
- Conducting in-depth investigations (for other than minor incidents); and
- Tracking and documenting periodic reviews as you monitor the performance of implemented mitigation strategies.
The above would be a very bare minimum to expect from even the most immature aviation SMS software. You will also need SMS performance monitoring dashboards to allow the accountable executive and upper-level management to monitor SMS performance.
Some immature, substandard safety cultures require tough love, meaning that management must closely monitor employees' activities in the SMS. To track employee safety performance, software tools will be required to track training, safety reporting, safety meeting attendance, etc.
Safety managers are performing a disservice to accountable executives by sticking to a spreadsheet SMS. There is no way for account executives to effectively monitor SMS performance using a spreadsheet SMS. Spreadsheets may work for the short term but are not a sustainable SMS data management strategy.
Aviation service providers shouldn't settle for the bare minimum because time is limited and aviation SMS software is not expensive when considering how much time it saves your company. When accountable executives are unable to monitor SMS performance, this needlessly increases the risk to the operating certificate.
SMS Continually Evolves - SMS Software Should Allow Growth
While you may be satisfied with SMS implementation planning tools and a reporting system early in the SMS, your data management requirements will certainly increase as the SMS implementation matures. Over the past dozen years, we've monitored the SMS implementations of hundreds of service providers around the world. Empirically, we see distinct SMS data management strategies based on SMS implementation maturity levels. Roughly, we see:
- spreadsheet and Word documents;
- Email and point solutions supplemented with spreadsheets; and finally
- Commercially available SMS software.
After six to eight years into the SMS implementation, SMS auditors expect more mature SMS data management strategies. They are expecting aviation service providers to demonstrate that they can identify safety issues and spot trends before these safety issues result in "The Accident" that we all know is coming but don't know to who or when. We do know why.
In a mature SMS, regulatory agencies are expecting trend analysis based on historical data collection, categorization, and analysis. How do you efficiently conduct the SMS trend analysis without SMS software tools that have been built for this particular end game in mind?
By adopting SMS software, you are hedging your bet that you will be playing and winning in the end games. SMS software automates these processes and easily allows your company to track key performance indicators and detect trends.
Have You Read
- How to Set and Monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in Existing SMS
- 5 Rules for Selecting KPIs in Aviation Safety Programs
- How to Best Monitor KPIs in Your Aviation SMS
Core Benefits from the Best SMS Software Solutions
When deciding on which SMS software to acquire, you should expect these benefits to outweigh your costs:
- Increased efficiency and effectiveness of organizational Quality, Safety, Security, and Regulatory Compliance activities using hazard reporting and risk management framework;
- Enhanced response times to hazard management and audit findings by streamlining planning and tracking activities;
- Secure centralized document repository for the entire organization;
- Collaborative environment to share processes, policies & procedures across all departments and entities, including internal and external users.
- Accurate and timely data & real-time statistics;
- Lessons Learned library to share knowledge across different users in the organization;
- Ability to integrate custom audit checklists to perform inspections, audits, and evaluations;
- Audit scheduling and integrated audit management using the same risk management framework;
- Configurable issue assessment and classification schemes enabling incidents to be categorized by multiple classification systems that integrate into risk analysis reporting tools.
Final Thoughts on Choosing SMS Software Solutions
When evaluating aviation SMS software solutions, safety managers need to determine whether:
- They should build or customize their own software, or
- Buy from a professional SMS software vendor.
Making the correct choice will:
- Satisfy Goals #1 and #2 outlined above;
- Enable competitive business advantages; and
- Earn accolades for the decision maker.
However, choosing the wrong SMS solution can be costly for aviation service providers and for the career of the person making the final decision. Therefore safety managers need to educate themselves on aviation SMS software features and benefits.
If you are looking to adopt SMS software, here are some demo videos that allow you to see what is possible. SMS Pro has been in production since 2008 and is used across the world in most aviation industry segments.
After watching the demo videos, if you have questions, sign up for a live demo. But first, educate yourself and management on the SMS documentation requirements. This will ensure you are prepared to make the best decision for your current situation.
Live SMS Pro Demo
Does it look like we are a good fit for you? Do you have questions? Sign up for a demo and we'll see if we can help.
Last updated January 2023