Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Continuous Improvement of Air Travel

I know some of you think mentioning air travel and continuous improvement together is an oxymoron. Due to the increased security measures and an airline industry that has spent more time devising new fees than it has spent thinking about customer service, air travel can be a disappointing experience. As a consultant I travel a fair bit. Because I am an easy going guy I am hard to rile up even when my travel experiences do not go as planned. Therefore a side benefit of my air travel is access to an unlimited number of examples I can use in my workshops and presentations to help others understand the potential improvements that could be made to a process. Let’s start with the TSA security check process we all have to endure when traveling by air.

A common lean methodology is to make information visual. Visual so that it is easily understood and accessible by all. The TSA does not understand this concept for whether I am going through the normal security check line or the TSA preferred line a TSA employee is standing around and occasionally shouts out instructions about what has to be removed from your baggage or your body. Simply visual drawings of stick figures with luggage could be used to tell the story of what has to be removed. These multi-lingual placards could be positioned at various points along each line. Then the individual who is standing around shouting could add value to the process by staffing another security check line thus speeding the inspection process for all travelers.

Here is another one. Have you ever been in line when the small plastic trays used to hold your shoes, computer, etc. are unavailable because they are all at the discharge side of the inspection process? Sure you have because it happens all day long. If the TSA understood and utilized the kanban replenishment lean tool this problem would never again slow the cycle time of moving people through the inspection process. To begin you would need three carts for each security line. Two of them loaded with a predetermined quantity of trays at the start of the line. The third cart, which would be empty, would be placed at the end of the inspection station. A max fill line would be painted on the vertical handle of each cart and when the empty trays reached that trigger point the TSA agent would move the full cart to the start of the line and bring back an empty cart. The filled cart is the kanban replenishment signal. This simply lean methodology could end the waiting for trays that delays their customers. If the TSA did indeed see us as their customers it could be a game changer. Now let’s move onto the plane and improve the luggage storage process.

By charging a fee for luggage checked onto a flight the airlines drove their customers to carry as much of their luggage as they possible could onto the plane. As a result the overhead storage trays are stuffed to overcapacity on almost every flight. Once they are full frustrated passengers have to carry their bags upstream, against the flow of traffic, to the front of the plane so they can be gate checked. And to add insult to injury there is always the announcement that “we will begin the departure process as soon as all of the bags are stowed.” They must understand they created this chaos by charging for baggage! I believe the price of carrying the luggage on a flight was always, and still is, built into their ticket pricing model. The airlines should eliminate the greed inspired baggage fees and spend their time improving the luggage collection; storage and retrieval process so that all customers can check their large luggage and only carry onto the plane a small carryon bag. Just think of the positive impact on the boarding process. It would both speed it up and make it safer. Requiring people to lift their 40 pound bags over someone’s head might be an OSHA violation – maybe OSHA should step in and issue citations for unsafe work practices and force the airline industry to change! Or maybe the airlines should issue hard hats to anyone sitting in an aisle seat!

Because of all the uncertainty, caused by the wasteful airline processes described above and variables like the weather, industry on time travel statistics suffered. Late flights became the norm. Rather than improve the poor processes the airlines seem to have taken a different approach. Have you noticed that the flight times you are now given, for any flight you book, are much longer than the actual “in the air” flight time? I think airlines have added extra time to the promised flight time so they can meet their on-time metrics. My flights now often land “ahead of schedule.” The question is was the flight schedule realistic or was it padded with extra time to cover up the wasteful processes of the airline industry.

My recent travels have taken me to the San Diego area where I conducted a 2-day Lean Safety workshop at a medical device company. The results of this public workshop were beneficial to both the attendees, who learned to see safety differently, and for the host site which was left with around 100 opportunities for improvement. I then facilitated at 1-day workshop for a local Chicago area company whose core competency is machining. They wanted to build a safety culture that engaged their employee based safety committee in safety improvement. A company’s culture is how people who are employed there think, act and interact. During the team report outs, at the end of the training day, a new passion for safety and working together was evident. I left feeling very satisfied that I had made a difference in the company culture.

There are some places you do not expect to go as a lean safety consultant - one of them being Manhattan in New York, NY. Yet I recently was invited by a large construction management company to contribute to a multi-day lean training program they were conducting for their local management team in mid-town Manhattan. I was asked to help the attendees understand the strong connection between their lean efforts and continuous improvement safety. Based on the end of day feedback the connection was made.

My summer consulting schedule is slow, which is just fine with me. It will allow me some time to get together with family and friends, play golf and watch way too much of the world cup soccer tournament before my travel starts again in the early fall. September will see me visiting both Australia and England. The SIRF organization will be sponsoring my visit to Australia and AME along with True North Excellence Ltd. are my sponsors in the UK. If you reside in either of those countries I hope we have a chance to connect during my visit. If you are interested in my travel and event schedule in those countries just let me know.

Stay safe!