What Is Continuous Improvement in Aviation SMS
The purpose of aviation safety management systems (SMS) is to ensure aviation service providers have a structured, formal process to manage safety, thereby reducing risk to the "transportation system."
Aviation SMS implementations are designed to continuously improve safety performance by:
- Identifying and documenting safety hazards;
- Collecting and analyzing safety data;
- Continuously monitoring and assessing safety risks; and
- Generating a heightened safety awareness among stakeholders.
Continuous improvement in aviation SMS is a big subject – as big as your aviation safety management system.
Continuous improvement is a concept addressing the overall improvement of the entire SMS. How do you know that you can satisfy the SMS' continuous improvement requirements?
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Continuous Improvement Not the Same for All Operators
Across your SMS implementation, improvement will happen:
- At different rates in different areas of your SMS;
- Likely in cycles of short-term improvement and regressions – the goal is that over time there is a marked improvement; and
- From stakeholders' conscious involvement at every level of your aviation SMS.
The final point, in particular, is non-negotiable. No matter how much you want to implement a functionally compliant aviation SMS using just your safety team, this is not sustainable. You need to have buy-in from employees and management alike, regardless of the size of your organization.
ICAO's Annex 19 states that all elements of an SMS implementation are applicable to all operators, regardless of their size and complexity. However, aviation service providers are encouraged to tailor the SMS requirements to their organization, as the strategies employed by one operator may not necessarily prove effective in another organization.
So how do you know your SMS' continuous improvement requirements are satisfied? The answer is not straightforward and is a bit subjective. Continuous improvement requirements will be satisfied when your organization routinely monitors SMS performance to identify potential areas of improvement. In addition, the outcomes of this "continuous improvement monitoring process" should lead to demonstrable improvements to the SMS.
Demonstrating Continuous Improvement Using Internal Audits
Audits provide the accountable executive, upper management, and the safety team with an assessment of safety data, documentation, processes, and procedures related to the aviation SMS implementation. An audit provides management with the necessary data to make fact-based decisions regarding the:
- Progress of the SMS implementation (SMS compliance);
- Effectiveness of the SMS implementation (safety performance); and
- Organization's safety culture.
Without exception, top management commitment and the organization's safety leadership team are critical to effective SMS implementation. Unless management can objectively evaluate where the aviation SMS implementation currently stands, there can be no practical strategy to adjust the course for the deficient SMS implementation.
SMS audits can be provided by internal or external auditors; however, it is recommended that an internal SMS audit is performed at least once before external SMS auditors are scheduled to audit your SMS.
Your internal SMS audit should:
- Sample historical safety issues processed through the SMS' risk management processes;
- Review historical SMS compliance performance;
- Ascertain safety goals and objectives exist and that they are current;
- Monitor aviation leading indicators;
- Review key performance indicator performance and their association to safety goals; and
- Assess aviation safety culture.
Creating a dedicated “Continuous Improvement Audit” checklist is a good idea. It is easier to acquire an SMS audit checklist that is used in your region than to create your own.
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How to Create an Internal SMS Audit Plan for Continuous Improvement
An internal audit plan for continuous improvement will ensure that your continuous improvement audits are performed regularly and consistently. Your SMS audit plan should outline each aspect of your internal audit:
- What you are auditing;
- How you are auditing it (procedures, checklists, processes); and
- Ideal outcome – this is the “standard” you are auditing against.
You might also include metadata information about your audit:
- Expected timeline;
- Expected frequency of the audit; and
- Roles and parties are responsible for conducting the audit.
Below are key parts of the SMS you should include in your internal audit of continuous improvement.
Sample Historical Safety Issues Managed
Your reported safety issues' risk management performance is the baseline of your safety assurance operations. Randomly sampling historical safety issues that had been processed using your documented risk management processes is an efficient way to assess the performance of management as they manage identified safety issues that have been:
- reported using your SMS' safety reporting system; or
- submitted as safety audit findings (or concerns).
Randomly sampling historical safety issues should assess:
- Appropriateness of risk management strategies implemented to correct the issue;
- Whether performed risk management activities align with documented risk management protocols.
- Initial and most recent risk assessments;
- Whether or not the latest risk assessment is justified and remains valid.
What you should be looking for is that the current risk assessment is equal to or lower than the most recent one. What you don’t want to see is a current risk assessment that is more than your most recent assessment, as this would indicate either:
- Safety issue was not properly managed;
- Issue was not reviewed frequently enough; or
- Issue was improperly assessed.
Finding that too many safety issues are not managed well indicates that your Safety Assurance operations may not be improving.
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- How to Audit Previously Managed Safety Issues in Aviation SMS
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Review Performance of Aviation Key Performance Indicators
Aviation key performance indicators (KPIs) are the quantitative sibling of your company's performance objectives. Auditing your KPIs involves verifying that:
- KPIs are being monitored;
- KPI monitoring data is up to date;
- All KPIs are up to date and current; and
- All KPIs have SMART targeted goals:
- Specific to an objective
- Measurable with a realistic metric
- Attainable – it’s reasonable that your SMS can achieve the goal
- Realistic – same thing as Attainable
When KPIs are not current or KPIs are not being monitored thoroughly, it shows a lack of commitment towards continuous improvement and will reflect poorly on external audits. Having automated KPI monitoring and notifications is a good way to ensure good audit performance.
Review Compliance Performance Over Time
Reviewing past internal and external audits is also a great way to measure the aviation SMS' continuous improvement:
- Do you see a steady reduction in the number of findings?
- Are you seeing a decline in repeat findings?
- Have any aspects of your SMS stalled completely or are in need of immediate improvement?
Reviewing past internal audits:
- Are a clear indication of historical improvement;
- Give you something to compare your current audit to; and
- Help you understand where to focus your current audit.
Related Aviation SMS Auditing Articles
- 5 Ways to Avoid Common Aviation SMS Audit Findings
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- 4 Tips for Passing Aviation SMS Audits -with Free Resources
Monitor Aviation Leading Indicators
Aviation leading indicators mark the underlying factors that drive safety performance. You might also call them “root causes” or “precursors” for safety performance. They are moderate to an advanced metric that is used by operators with more sophisticated SMS data management strategies.
Many aviation SMS implementations don’t begin to adopt the use of leading indicators until their SMS matures and there is sufficient safety data to assess. Some leading indicators may also double as KPIs or serve as an indicator as to whether safety goals and objectives are being achieved.
Nonetheless, leading indicators are an essential piece of your SMS to audit if you use them, especially as a marker of continuous improvement.
For more information about using leading indicators in your SMS implementation, see our list – it’s a great place to get started.
Assess Safety Culture
Finally, because buy-in from all employees is necessary for continuous improvement, assessing safety culture is important too. You can do this with:
Ideally, you assess safety culture at regular intervals and can track progress over time. It’s a powerful way to track the effectiveness of your safety promotional efforts.
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles
- What Does Aviation Safety Culture Look Like?
- How to Build Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
- 5 Characteristics of Effective Aviation Safety Cultures - with Free Survey
Best Practices for Demonstrating Continuous Improvement
Each organization is unique. What works well with one operator may not work with another. So how does one evaluate the performance of their continuous improvement processes? While I don't have all the answers to this question, I do have some best practices that you can easily use to demonstrate your organization's commitment to "continuous improvement to the SMS." These best practices include:
- Use lessons learned library to communicate safety concerns and generate awareness;
- Benchmark your SMS' safety performance against operators with similar size and scope of operations;
- Use SMS database software to store, collect, retrieve, and analyze safety data;
- Share your safety information with others in regional safety conferences;
- Best SMS practices are researched and embraced;
- Require vendors to have their own SMS (even though not required by regulatory authorities);
- Regularly assess safety culture using surveys and assessments;
- Develop KPIs that easily communicate continuous improvement.
I'm certain your imagination can come up with a few more best practices to add to the list.
SMS Database Reduces Effort Demonstrating Compliance
In closing, an SMS implementation has specific SMS documentation requirements that extend for many years. It is common to see operators trending safety data from five to ten years in the past. When dealing with vast amounts of safety data that span many years, a spreadsheet is simply the wrong technology to employ.
Operators with more than 40 employees are recommended to use an SMS database to manage their SMS documentation requirements. Even very small operators with fewer than 40 employees will benefit from an SMS database when they have high employee turnover or they are marketing their services as "premier" or for clients who consider themselves as "VIPs."
An SMS database will save many hours of the safety teams' time in collating and presenting safety data that demonstrates your organization's commitment to continuous improvement. To learn how your company can benefit from a low-cost, commercially available SMS database, please watch these short demo videos:
Last updated in March 2023.