Friday, January 28, 2011

Help me help flight attendants

Some day in the near or distant future Boeing will finally start to deliver their long promised Dreamliner airplane to customers like American Airlines. Just imagine yourself boarding this technological marvel of a plane and 20 minutes later being confronted, or maybe rammed, with technology from 1955.

I am talking about the drink cart that is rolled, pushed and shoved down the main aisle of the plane by the flight attendants. I recently flew home on an American flight from Dallas. This flight along with every other American flight allows for plenty of time to practice the lean safety skill of “observing a work process with an eye for safety improvement.” The flight attendants I observed had to constantly twist and contort their backs and necks while leaning over in an attempt to locate the correct drink can in the trays of cans stored under the cart. They repeatedly slide out trays that were unstable and hard to slide in and out for they only lay on guide rails. If they pulled the tray out too far, it and the contents could fall to the floor. Therefore they are required to hold onto the front of the tray while bent over, in low light conditions, searching for that elusive last can of apple juice. Once the passengers in the immediate area were served their drink (no snacks like a bag of pretzels or peanuts on American) they now had to move this ancient dirty cart down the aisle. To me it looked as if it had never been maintained let alone washed. Next the flight attendant repeatedly stabbed the area around the cart wheels with her foot in an attempt to hit the lever that would release the wheel brake. Then with the help of another flight attendant they pushed and shoved the cart forward. Well not really forward - it was more of a zigzag route caused by the wheels, which due to a lack of maintenance, did not roll very well. Just imagine this vintage cart, which deserves a spot in the Smithsonian Air Museum alongside the Wright brothers first plane, scrapping the new surfaces off of the arm rests on a new Dreamliner. But more importantly imagine the effect of the contorted and stressful actions on the bodies and limbs of flight attendants. The goal of a lean safety kaizen blitz is to keep an individual’s body parts in a neutral position while working. Observing this work task with an eye for improvement would provide a lengthy list of opportunities for improvement.

That's where your help is needed. I need you to forward this blog post to anyone you know who works in the airline industry. I want to facilitate a safety kaizen blitz with a group of flight attendants and I need your help to make contact with some decision makers. The goal would be to reduce or eliminate soft tissue injury risks from the task of serving drinks.

Obviously the solution American Airlines would probably suggest would be to stop serving drinks! That would align nicely with their campaign to give customers less but charge them more. If any of you know an American Airlines executive ask them to conduct some benchmarking by taking a Southwest Airlines flight. Southwest, which I am guessing has a continuous improvement culture, must have already considered the effects of man-handling carts on their flight attendants. The American executives will be shocked to see that Southwest has eliminated the drink cart from the aisle and yet still serves drinks! Then, when handed two “free” bags of snacks, they will experience what it feels like to be treated like a valued customer. This could be game changing for American.

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