The reality of evolving aviation maintenance management

When contemplating moving to a new Maintenance IT system it is easy to become fixated on the capabilities of the competing systems. For me this puts
the "cart before the horse". Yes it is important to understand the relative merits of each system. But it is vital to lay the proper platform for decision making by first identifying the challenges faced by your organization, appreciating the strategic environment in which it operates and, most importantly, deciding clearly what it is that the organization is going to be asked to do.

Those who take the time and effort to do this are then best placed to match the purpose of their organization with the capabilities of the competing systems
and stand a far better chance at success. Matching the need to the system also minimises local variations to the software package. The closer the fit, the easier
training becomes, and the less fuss about change among staff.

Strategy Dictates the System

There are a number of reasons organisations take on the mammoth task of new systems implementation – the expensive upkeep of outdated systems; preparing for new regulations; a declining level of tolerance for errors; the complexities of managing varied fleets; and of course, overall safety concerns.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult to harvest solid returns in this industry, prompting many airlines to merge operations, undertake joint ventures, sell off their maintenance operations or look to increased third party revenue in an effort keep costs in check and enhance overall service delivery. Such change also offers a perfect breakpoint at which to rationalize and pursue a new, more modern approach to E&M, using systems that capitalize on new Web and digital technologies that have suddenly opened up greater opportunities for business optimization and real-time compliance.

Successfully meeting these challenges however can be a notoriously fraught process. Here are three suggested steps to follow to maximise the
chances of success:

1 – Define Your Organization for Today and Tomorrow

Typical aviation organizations offer a wide matrix of functions and services.

Figure 1 lays out a simple model for a range of E&M operations.

The horizontal axis of differentiation separates operations that are predominantly airline oriented and those that are service provider oriented. A further point of difference is how much of your organization's business involves third-party work. If a high percentage, then elements of the business system that support the quoting, management and billing of work will assume greater importance. Correspondingly, if the amount of third party work is low, then elements such as optimising the maintenance program, controlling the configuration or managing reliability assume greater importance.

Your organization's level of simplicity – as defined by the vertical axis in figure 1 – is another influencing factor to keep in mind. One of the key challenges in E&M today is to regain some of the simplicity that has been lost through fleet change, aging aircraft, retrospective regulation and new passenger systems, to name just a few.

Finally, it is equally important to keep one eye of the future. Your new aviation maintenance system will typically have a lifespan in the range of 15-25 years, so it is vital that future strategic and operational demands are anticipated. You want to choose a system that will evolve in lockstep with you, not pose a barrier to change. Admittedly, this first step can be a little daunting. But it also presents a perfect opportunity to challenge the current state of business processes. A consultant I worked with used to say: "Not addressing business process change during an implementation is like paving cow paths." To be successful inherently requires a mindset that has to be aggressively transformative.

Armed with a clear picture of the role of your organisation and its current and future needs the system selection process can be approached in a rational and straightforward manner – searching for the "best fit", not the "best system".

2 – Build An Airtight Plan

Every good systems migration plan comes with a business case that clearly outlines what business benefits your organization wants to achieve, how the new IT system will help get you there, and what baseline metrics – quantitative and qualitative – will help define success. The business case can typically be structured around three broad areas:

* IT costs including licensing, operation and decommissioning
* System development including specification, business process reviews and design
* Data cleansing, change management and training

Beyond this, there are other key factors that require consideration when assembling the plan:

* Change Readiness – Taking a transformative approach raises the question of the change readiness within the organisation. How well is change understood? Are labour contracts up for negotiation? Does the organisation possess tools such as lean-sigma which can be leveraged during the project? If your organisation does not have some form of standardized business process management in place, then at this point you should strongly consider investing in one.

* The Regulator - It is critical that the regulator be a trusting partner in the process, one who is convinced of the long term benefits and who will work constructively in the implementation phase when the ride can get a little bumpy.

* Phasing – Phasing a project can help, but it can also increase the complexity of the implementation - look for the path of least risk. Aim for quick wins along the way, both to validate system performance and chip away at user scepticism.

* New Aircraft - If a new aircraft type is to be added during or near the implementation timeframe, move heaven and earth to get it on the new system. After all, it is a great trial for the system, tunes up the implementation team, shows what the vendor can and cannot do, and avoids later wasted effort in data cleansing.

* Data Cleansing – The real time tracking ability of modern systems are a great step forward in safety and compliance. Migrating legacy data to the new system in a form and at a standard consistent with these new capabilities is a real challenge that requires careful planning and significant effort.

* Change Management – Staff need to understand the plan. Middle management needs to be informed and be able to garner support for the plan. Stakeholders need to be kept informed and stay actively involved. The old adage is true – in the absence of good information, people will always assume the worst.

3 – Build Internal Champions

No systems implementation project can be a success without a team of dedicated professionals championing the cause from start to finish, both internally and externally.

It all starts with the top level of the airline or parent organisation. Unless they are wholly committed, the project will fail. They must understand the reality of a project like this and be ready to ride out the inevitable issues that a project of this complexity will create.

Turning to the team itself, the ideal person to head the project should come from the business side. As project champion, he or she should have the respect of colleagues and the credibility to advocate change. The rest of the team should mirror the three main streams of activity, involving IT experts, business system experts, and change management and training specialists.

After the design phase, the team will next have the challenge of getting users to adopt the new system. All organizations have cultural resistance to change, to a greater or lesser extent. Through it all, the project team needs to remain steadfast in the face of such objections, and mindful of the higher goal at hand – greater overall system effectiveness and compliance, and hopefully simplicity.

One final note here – your champions become even more valuable to you once the implementation is completed. The challenges of cultural change, system
acceptance and process resistance do not magically disappear once the system is fully rolled out. Your champions will need to serve as continuing role models,
change agents and 'gurus' on the new system and all its advantages. A careful plan of skills retention and migration into the business is vital to keeping these leaders onboard, backed up by retention tools such as bonuses.

A Dose of Realism

Today's modern solutions offer aviation maintenance organizations significant opportunities to improve processes and optimize the business. The inherent danger is to focus too much on the new system itself. A better approach is to start with a clear understanding of your organisation's strategy, supported by a comprehensive plan. Address this first and foremost, and it will afford you the best chance to match the selected system to the tasks that will be asked of it.

But remember that there is no perfect match. There will still be functional or operational gaps and complexities. Similarly, be realistic about the levels of risk in a project of this scale. Build an effective team and remember the external stakeholders. The two most critical are the senior management in your organisation and the regulator. Both need to be trusting partners in the implementation, and need to clearly understand the pitfalls and, more importantly, the benefits for future
safety and compliance.

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