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Six Sigma for Corporate Aviation

The accountable executive is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of your business aircraft operations

It’s been almost three decades since “Six Sigma” entered our vocabulary. Developed at Motorola to improve manufacturing processes and eliminate defects, it revolutionized quality control processes around the world, by proving that proper investments in quality provided outstanding improvements to the bottom line. Implementing Six Sigma meant fewer reworks and fewer product returns, and higher quality meant improved sales and profitability.

While originating as a manufacturing application, Six Sigma’s success there led to modifications and adoption in many other business processes. But where the goal of a Six Sigma process is achieving a 99.99966% defect-free rate of manufacture, our goal for aviation safety is Zero Defects, for obvious reasons.

And that’s why the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) developed what amounts to a Six Sigma safety program for business aviation, called a Safety Management System (SMS). Each Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), such as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has the option to augment those international standards with its own requirements.

Flying a corporate jet no longer is just “kick the tires, light the fires and go.” The industry has evolved, and that kind of cavalier attitude toward safety just won’t fly anymore.

What is Safety Management?

As defined by ICAO, safety management is a process for establishing lines of safety accountability throughout the organization, including the senior managers. Safety management is created by a government developing and implementing a State Safety Program (SSP). The Safety Management System (SMS) is a systematic approach to managing safety in compliance with the SSP. It includes the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, and policies developed by and for business aircraft operators.

The Regulatory Environment is Changing…

The FAA will have to transition from a regulatory compliance and oversight approach to one based upon risk management, utilizing safety indicators and safety targets. This represents a significant change, from a reactive to a proactive performance-based approach to air safety.

Today, countries around the globe are in various stages of SMS adoption and implementation, and that is a source of frustration for operators flying internationally. Although the global business aviation community is uniting around IBAC’s International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO), it is not yet the unanimous choice. More detail regarding SMS can be found at http://www.aviationresearch.com/FreeDataEmail.aspx?id=4.

Phases of SMS Implementation

The FAA is taking a phased implementation approach. Business aircraft operators who are IS-BAO (Part 91/135) registered should find that conformity with these standards provides a beneficial “intermediate step” toward full SMS implementation.
A significant characteristic of the SMS standard is the emphasis on senior management – the C-Suite – commitment to operational safety. That emphasis is reinforced by the introduction of the terms “Accountable Executive” and “Documented Safety Accountabilities.” Although familiar concepts in the European Union, these may require some getting used to in the US.

Who Is the Accountable Executive?

The Accountable Executive (AE) is the aircraft operator’s senior management official with overall responsibility for ensuring the safety and security of business aircraft operations. This individual has authority to make policy decisions; provide adequate resources; maintain financial control; lead organizational performance, safety, and management reviews; and accept operational risk. The AE may be a non-pilot CEO or COO, or in the case of smaller organizations, the Director of Operations who is assigned additional responsibilities.

What the Accountable Executive Needs to Understand

SMS implementation may involve significant change for many operators. The commitment to SMS must be endorsed, supported, and communicated by the AE who leads that change and must understand:

  • SMS is a business approach to managing safety.
  • The use of risk indices and risk mitigation.
  • The SMS standard requires his or her leadership in the management review process, the identification of and mitigation of identified operational hazards, and acceptance of predicted residual risk associated with a significant change in operations.
  • The requirement to provide adequate resources for the safety and quality services departments that lead Safety Risk Management.
  • SMS implementation is a major cultural change in terms “of the way we do business.”
  • Direct responsibility for safety rests with line management and employees, but must be modeled and supported at the senior management level.
  • A healthy corporate culture requires constant nurturing, is composed of multiple components, and that non-punitive methods are necessary to manage human error.
  • Certain individuals in the organization will resist SMS implementation and that the Accountable Executive must model desired attitudes and behaviors to all employees.
  • There must be continued support for the SMS champion (safety manager) who will lead and communicate the development progress throughout the organization.

As a Member of Senior Leadership, What Should I Be Doing Now?

Despite pushback from many experienced pilots and aviation managers, SMS is going to be a requirement for all aircraft operations worldwide. As the global regulatory community’s processes and procedures for monitoring SMS implementation and regulation evolve, here is what you can do to increase your comfort level and enable development of an SMS implementation strategy and timeline:

  • Ensure that the organization’s “SMS champion” (safety manager) is both qualified and trained to lead the SMS development effort. Since SMS implementation may require from one to four years, this individual needs to remain in this role for continuity.
  • If not already in progress, begin to familiarize yourself with SMS standards, vocabulary, tools, and techniques. A useful website to obtain the latest FAA SMS materials is sponsored by MITRE Corporation: http://www.mitrecaasd.org/SMS/documents.html.
  • As an interim step, consider either IOSA or IS-BAO registration. This commitment will provide operators with a start down the path of SMS implementation now rather than waiting for the FAA rule to be published. For international operators, registration signals positive intent to meet SMS requirements and evidence of actual progress.

Taking these steps now to understand the new regulations will ensure a smoother transition, greater productivity, and, most importantly, increased safety. BAA

Joe Moeggenberg is founder and president of ARGUS International, an aviation consulting company specializing in market intelligence data and research, onsite safety audits, and Safety Management Systems. He is a commercial-rated pilot with 4,000+ hours of flight experience.


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