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How to Set Up Classifications in Aviation SMS Implementations

Posted by Tyler Britton on Dec 25, 2019 6:12:00 AM

Why Classifications Are Important in Risk Management Activities

How to Set Up Classifications in Aviation SMS Implementations

The objective of aviation safety management systems (SMS) is proactively manage safety using structured risk management processes.

Once operators have these processes in place, it is the civil aviation authorities (CAA) expectation for aviation service providers to able to use all four SMS components (also known as pillars) to enhance their capability to identify safety issues and spot trends before they result in a

  • near-miss,
  • incident, or
  • accident.

Classifications are the bread and butter for organizing the SMS implementation's accumulated safety data. This accumulated data may easily encompass five to ten years' worth of safety information.

Without proper organization, the value of your safety data is greatly reduced. Yes, the data still has value, but considerably more effort will be required to perform meaningful data mining activities. This holds true not only with your future predictive risk management activities but also with your day-to-day reactive and proactive risk management activities.

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Effective SMS Classification Schemes Add Decision-Making Value

Making safety decisions without well-constructed data-classification schemes is like riding a bike with flat tires – you won’t get anywhere. In fact, one of the primary markers of a functional aviation SMS (versus one that is a farce) is a well-organized set of classifications that allow management to easily analyze safety-related data to facilitate data-driven decision-making processes.

Yet as important as they are, we see aviation service providers all over the globe struggling with building classification systems that:

  • Are intuitive and easy to navigate;
  • Comply with standards of oversight agencies; and
  • Provide specific data organization (but not TOO specific) that allows for meaningful data analysis.

The real implication of classifications is that they allow you to:

  • Identify your safety needs based on most common classifications;
  • Monitor your aviation SMS' performance;
  • Effectively data mine SMS' operational data for managerial decision-making; and
  • Establish historical safety trends to predict future performance and identify risk.

Classifications are fundamental to the efficacy of every aviation SMS implementation, regardless of how much safety data is being collected. Aviation SMS cannot function without organized data as collected data facilitate safety performance monitoring and demonstrate the organization's commitment to continuous improvement of the aviation SMS.

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What Is a Classification in Aviation SMS?

Airport crew

A classification is a unit of organization used to tag collected safety information, including, but not limited to:

  • Reported safety issues;
  • Audit findings;
  • Safety messages; or
  • Vendors.

By “unit of organization,” we are talking about a short phrase that describes a particular type of safety issue, data type, or behavior, such as a human factor.

These safety items can be described in terms of:

  • “Type” of problem, such as “Aircraft damage in hangar”;
  • A central issue, like an identified hazard, such as "Runway excursion";
  • A central human component (Human Factor) that contributes to situation, such as "Overtime hours";
  • The root cause(s), such as "Lack of flight training"; and
  • Other factors, such as classifying the type of relevant procedure, policy, task, etc.

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How to Organize Different Classification Types in Aviation SMS

A classification type is generally organized in a nested data structure, similar to a tree with branches, whereby you have:

  • A major classification category or “system”, such as:
    • Flight Related,
    • Ground Ops,
    • Health and Safety, etc.;
  • A sub-category within each category that further organizes different hazards within the category, such as:
    • Flight Related → Landing,
    • Flight Related → Runway,
    • Flight Related → Takeoff; and
  • The base level classification within each category, such as:
    • Flight Related → Landing → Aborted Landing,
    • Flight Related → Landing → Rejected Landing,
    • Flight Related → Landing → Unstable Approach.

For best results, classifications are organized into three levels, such as described above. Having more “levels” can easily become pedantic and unmanageable. Fewer levels tend to be vague and unhelpful in making decisions and establishing meaningful trends.

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Organizing Classifications Using a Classification Tree

Classification data, as described above, are perhaps best organized into a responsive classification tree. A “classification tree” allows you to easily expand and collapse each category and sub-category. This successfully condenses large amounts of information into a manageable format.

Compare this to something like a table. If you are looking at Hazard Classifications, for example, you might have 200 or more unique hazard classifications:

  • As a table, this information would be the equivalent of about 4 pages long with small print;
  • As a table, this information would also have much redundant text because every line item would include the name of the category and sub-category; but
  • As a classification tree, this information would be about 10 lines long (minimum) to 20 lines long (category fully extended), or about the equivalent of about half a page (small print); and
  • Moreover, a properly structured classification tree has no redundant text.

However, having a classification tree means having a computer-based risk management system, such as aviation SMS database software or a similar product. Classification trees cannot be used in other mediums, such as Excel or Microsoft word-based classification organizational systems.

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How Specific Should Classifications Be?

Airport crew

One of the most important questions regarding risk classifications is: how specific should they be? Unfortunately, there’s no objective answer to this question. The best answer is that good classification trees are organized into three levels (category → subcategories → classifications) and are:

  • Specific enough to be useful for making safety decisions and establishing trends;
  • Not so specific that you need many, many classifications to capture the essential idea; but
  • Vague enough to be useful for capturing various, similar situations.

For example, good specificity of classifications looks like:

  • Flight Ops → Wildlife → Birdstrike;
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Wildlife on runway; and
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Rodent in aircraft.

You can see in the above examples that the classifications are specific enough to capture the essential piece of information, such as “animals” and “runway”, but not so specific that many classifications are needed to capture the basic idea.

Less effective use of classifications are listed below – and it’s probably the most common mistake (along with having classifications that are too vague) of using classifications in the aviation industry:

  • Flight Ops → Wildlife → Moose on runway;
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Bear on runway;
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Deer on runway;
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Mouse in aircraft; and
  • Flight Related → Wildlife → Rat in aircraft.

You can see that the above classifications are less effective because you need so many more classifications to capture the same essential information. Information such as which “type” of animal is better suited for being established in the issue description of a safety report rather than the classification.

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Final Thoughts on Filtering Aviation SMS Data

Without a doubt, there will come a time when the safety manager will need to filter safety reports in order to make some sort of data-based decision. As we have discussed, any sort of SMS documentation can be organized according to a classification schema (taxonomy) that makes sense to the organization.

There are taxonomies available from regulatory agencies and standard-setting bodies, such as IATA, IS-BAO, and Flight Safety Foundation. When adopting a third-party classification schema, the challenge is that sometimes a hazard or reported safety issue does not cleanly align with your adopted classification schema. This should not deter you, as each organization is a bit different. You are expected to have classification schemes that align with your operations. Therefore, adding additional classifications to an adopted classification schema is not a large concern... except when...

You have discovered a hazard or reported issue that does not fit within your defined schema. While classifying this safety issue, you want to be as exact as possible. There is a natural tendency to keep adding to the classification until it satisfies every possible scenario. But this becomes a problem.

There is a fine line between what constitutes "classification overkill." Safety managers want to classify the item with an appropriate degree of detail, yet specific enough that hazards and reported safety issues are easy to assign. The challenge is to create classifications that are generic enough that the items remain valuable for risk management analysis activities, such as aggregation into similar data categories.

Managing classification schemes becomes easiest when you have a robust aviation SMS database to facilitate the collection, storage, and retrieval of your SMS documentation requirements. Furthermore, an SMS database allows your organization to maximize the utility of your SMS data as you conduct not only predictive risk management activities but also your proactive and reactive activities.

To learn more about how your company can benefit from a low-cost, commercially available SMS database, please watch the following short demo videos.

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Last updated November 2022.

Topics: 3-Safety Assurance

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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