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How to Choose KPIs for Aviation SMS - with Free KPI Resources

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jun 25, 2019 6:09:00 AM

Why KPIs Are Different in Aviation Safety Management Systems?

How to Choose KPIs for Aviation SMS

Key performance indicators (KPIs) in aviation safety management systems (SMS) are different than KPIs from most other industries. The differences both benefit and hurt safety management teams' ability to choose the right KPIs for their organization.

The important differences between aviation SMS KPIs and other industries are that:

  • KPIs in aviation need to cover a broader spectrum of performance (quality, safety, compliance) than most industries;
  • Aviation is one of the highest-risk industries, both financially and in terms of safety;
  • Oversight agencies provide more oversight and guidance than most other industries; and
  • “Performance” in aviation safety has several different meanings.

All of these points have two important implications:

  • On the one hand, choosing KPIs in aviation SMS implementations is absolutely critical (lives depend upon it), and can be a stressful experience; but
  • Fortunately, there are many resources and sources of guidance.

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Here is a quick side note: key performance indicators are the same as safety performance indicators (SPIs). SPIs are a subset of all of an organization's KPIs; however, SPIs focus on safety elements. If you have an integrated safety and quality management system (QSMS), then you will probably call these performance indicators "KPIs."

Whenever there is any confusion between KPIs and SPIs in the aviation SMS context, I would personally use SPIs.


Lagging and Leading Indicators Represent Aviation SMS KPIs

Any KPI in your aviation SMS will be one of the following types of safety performance indicators:

  • Leading indicators: represent underlying factors that drive performance; and
  • Lagging indicators: represent historical performance measurements.

A quality list of an aviation SMS' KPIs should include both lagging and leading indicators. With these points in mind, here is how to choose KPIs in aviation SMS programs in 6 steps.

Our list of 40 aviation SMS leading indicators is completely free!

1 – List Core Safety Goals and Business Goals

Every organization will have different KPIs because every organization will have different goals and objectives. In order for your organization to choose KPIs, you need to have your objectives clearly listed.

These objectives should:

  • Encompass every level of the organization (front line, management, upper management, investors);
  • Encompass short, medium, and long-term goals;
  • Create a “manifesto” of the most important aspirations/needs of the company;
  • Include safety and quality goals;
  • Be realistic and attainable; and
  • Should be described and justified.

Chosen KPIs will be grounded in these aims, so the listed objectives should be chosen with great care, and described in great detail. What makes creating this list slightly difficult is the fact that the list of goals should include objectives that are short-term ( < 1 year), medium-long-term (1 – 3 years), and long-term ( 3+ years).

KPIs should never be chosen without a list of carefully considered safety goals and objectives. In addition, safety goals and objectives must align with organizational goals and objectives.

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2 – Gather List of Safety Data Metrics

A great way to brainstorm KPIs for the aviation SMS is to gather a large list of safety data metrics. These metrics can:

  • Already exist in your company;
  • Be provided by your aviation safety management system software;
  • Come from other, similar aviation service providers; or
  • Be provided by oversight agencies.

The larger the initial list, the better. For example, our list of 40 leading indicators would be one such resource of data metrics to include in your list. The point of having this list is two-fold:

  • Generate ideas for custom metrics; and
  • Provide a list of potential candidates to use in the next few steps.

Download Free Aviation Hazard Classifications List

3 – Metrics to Avoid Using for KPIs

The first thing you will want to do next is cross out or delete certain types of data points from the list of data in order to narrow potential KPIs. Some KPIs that should be obvious enough to delete are:

  • Not attainable to quantify;
  • Cookie cutter metrics – i.e., “standard” data metrics that many other organizations are probably using as well;
  • Don’t relate to goals; and
  • “Simple” or “general” metrics – KPIs should be very specific.

This step in the process should remove a majority of ineligible items from the list. As the saying goes:

  • Eliminate extreme prejudice.

You should have high standards for your KPIs, and if any potential metric even slightly has any qualities from the above points, cross it out.

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4 – Signs of Good KPIs

Once you have deleted your list of metrics to avoid, look through non-eliminated metrics for signs of good KPIs and put a star next to them, circle them, etc. As said, you should have high standards for potential KPIs.

To “star” a potential KPI, it should meet the following qualifications:

  • It is quantifiable;
  • You have the means to monitor and track the metric’s data points;
  • It is aligned directly with company safety goals and objectives; and
  • It is “specific” – i.e., few or no other organizations will have this exact same statistic.

Consider each remaining metric carefully. After going through the list and starring/circling potential KPIs, cross out any un-circled/un-starred metrics.

KPIs Best Practices Quiz

5 – How Many KPIs Should You Have?

Every organization will be different. Smaller organizations may have 5 KPIs that they monitor. Larger organizations may have considerably more. The right number of KPIs for your organization should be:

  • However many are manageable by your safety manager and/or safety team.

In the case of KPIs, more does not mean better. Having many KPIs is a very good indication that:

  • Objectives and goals were not clearly defined;
  • KPIs were not chosen carefully enough;
  • Some KPIs are dated and no longer relevant; and/or
  • KPIs are not tailored to your organization.

The “right number of KPIs” is something that takes time to figure out. At first, you will probably have too few or too many. Over time it will become apparent that:

  • Some KPIs are not as relevant as you first thought they would be (so you can remove them); or
  • Your current list does not capture one or several key metrics that mark performance (and you should have a good idea of which metric(s) to add).

Don't worry. This is not a test and your list of KPIs can be modified as the operating environment changes. Be alert of having too many KPIs. Too many KPIs are a sure sign of the scatter-gun approach, which is basically "point and hope." The scatter-gun approach is a great indicator that the safety team doesn't understand KPIs and that they need training.

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6 – Create Plan to Monitor KPIs

A solid plan for monitoring KPIs is absolutely essential. You need to ensure that KPI data is accurate and dependable, as you will be making safety-critical decisions based on those KPIs. Your plan should capture:

  • How each metric will be monitored, such as with aviation SMS software; and
  • Who will be managing the monitoring of the KPI.

This plan will be useful to ensure that KPIs are adequately monitored and managed, as well as strengthen confidence with auditors and other stakeholders.

Final Thoughts on Choosing KPIs for Aviation SMS

Safety managers are not business majors. The first time that many safety managers encounter KPIs in their careers is with their aviation SMS implementations. Ten years ago, there was considerable confusion and frustration among new safety managers as they created their KPI lists. I'm pleased to see that safety managers are improving and I would like to think that we have helped educate safety managers on KPIs. KPIs are among the hottest topics in aviation SMS.

Some KPI lists I've seen over the past dozen years are absolutely terrible. The worst case was when a safety manager marked every type of safety issue as a KPI. Their aviation SMS had over 130 KPIs to monitor. It became brutally evident that the safety manager didn't consider the definition of a key performance indicator. From the safety manager's perspective, every type of safety issue was important and he believed that if he didn't mark an item as a KPI, it would fall through the cracks.

The takeaway is that too many KPIs dilute the purpose of focusing on KPIs. KPIs allow managers to focus on important data elements that affect their safety goals. If you don't have a safety goal associated with a KPI, then you should be asking yourself, "why did I choose to include this data category as a KPI?"

Effective safety managers benefit when they can easily list and track safety goals and objectives. Furthermore, when they have tools that allow them to monitor KPIs that are directly related to safety goals, the organization becomes more efficient at monitoring aviation SMS performance.

If your SMS does not have user-friendly tools to select and monitor KPIs for your aviation SMS, you should consider SMS Pro. Since 2007, SMS Pro has been providing aviation SMS databases to operators around the world. Please review these short demo videos to learn how your SMS will benefit from a best-in-class aviation SMS database.

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Get started with creating your KPIs with our list of proven-quality KPIs in the aviation industry:

Download Aviation KPIs Resources

Last updated January 2023.

Topics: Key Performance Indicators

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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