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Six Sigma for Aviation Safety

June 22, 2012

By Joe Moeggenberg

President/CEO ARGUS International, Inc

Developed at Motorola more than 25 years ago to improve their manufacturing processes and eliminate defects, Six Sigma revolutionized quality control processes around the world, by proving that proper investments in quality provided outstanding improvements to the bottom line. Companies like GE and Honeywell have seen the benefits of implementing Six Sigma, with fewer reworks and fewer product returns, as higher quality meant improved sales and profitability.

Six Sigma’s success among manufactures led to the modifications and adoption in many other business processes. However, where the goal of a Six Sigma manufacturing process is to achieve a 99.99966% defect-free rate, the goal of 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. Flying a corporate jet no longer is just “kick the tires, light the fires” and go, as it was a few decades ago. The industry has evolved, and that kind of cavalier attitude toward safety just won’t fly anymore.

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.

Welcome to the world of Safety Management Systems (SMS) for corporate aviation, which involves both responsibility and accountability for corporate leaders like you.

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 like you. 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.

A source of major frustration for many international operators is the various stages of SMS adoption and implementation seen from country to country. 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 .

Phases of SMS Implementation.

The FAA is taking a phased implementation approach to SMS. Business aircraft operators who are IS-BAO 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’s – 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 familiarization with SMS standards, vocabulary, tools, and techniques. A useful website to obtain the latest FAA SMS materials is sponsored by MITRE Corporation:
  • 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 familiarize yourself with the new regulations will ensure a smoother transition, greater productivity, and, most importantly, increased safety.

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