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What an Aviation Leading Indicator is

An aviation leading indicator in aviation SMS programs is an exceptional data metric for understanding why your safety program performs successfully or poorly.  They tend to be complex metric, and are usually defined by measuring the frequency or rate (i.e., "average rate") of a particular safety element.They are a hallmark of proactive risk management. Leading indicators identify:

  • Inputs of the program;
  • Precursors leading to future performance;
  • Organizational weaknesses, such as poor safety culture, resistance to change, etc.; and
  • Underlying causes for safety performance.

Aviation leading indicators are extremely helpful for knowing what is put in into the safety program. They tend to be used to understand the effectiveness of safety training, safety meetings, policies/procedures, and safety issue management. 

Leading indicators are valuable candidates for:

  • Key performance indicators; or
  • Comparing to aviation lagging indicators.

For example, correlating the number of safety meetings (leading) with the number of high risk safety issues (lagging) will allow you to understand the the value of the leading indicator.

What a leading indicator is graphic

Can Any Aviation SMS Program Use Leading Indicators?

Leading indicators are usually adopted by SMS programs until they are far along in implementation. Safety programs in phase 4 or completed implementation would greatly benefit by developing leading indicators. This is because well implemented safety programs have:

  • Much historical safety data;
  • Many implemented risk controls;
  • Well developed reactive risk management;
  • Established safety budgets and risk management tools; and
  • Most importantly, have probably begun to reach the performance plateaus that can only be improved with proactive risk management operations.

Safety programs in early phases of implementation can also develop a handful of leading indicators. However, in such programs resources will usually be better spent:

  • Implementing risk controls;
  • Developing reactive risk management techniques; and
  • Garnering support (i.e. financial, risk management tools, etc.) for the program.

A good idea for such programs is to choose three or four leading indicators that can easily be monitored.

Aviation Leading Indicators vs. Lagging Indicators

Lagging indicators in aviation safety programs are the exact opposite of leading indicators. Lagging indicators:

  • Are the “output” of the program;
  • Show past safety data;
  • Characterize the historical performance of the program; and
  • Often they are easy to measure but difficult to improve.

Lagging indicators’ usefulness is for seeing the performance of an aviation SMS program.  Aviation SMS safety performance is the “output” of the program. Lagging indicators answer the WHAT of how the safety program is performing, but doesn’t necessarily answer the WHY of performance.

Leading indicators are used to answer the WHY of safety performance.