"Lean" Airlines


Comics and Editorial Cartoons: Ben Sargent on Yahoo! News

Honestly, if anyone really uses this story (earlier mention here) as an example of “lean,” I will throw something.

The idea of strapping 900 people into a plane is, again, an example of an internal “cost” focus, as opposed to a customer focus. If it's cheaper to stack people into a plane it's good for the company… unless that experience is so bad that they never come back. Then, the layoffs start…. the cycle continues.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. As a frequent flyer on Southwest, Bulgaria Air, Cathay Air, and others, I understand your point. However, isn’t value in the eye of the customer, and if, on some short haul routes, more capacity is needed and the value is to arrive quickly, might this meet the expectations of a niche of the flying public? Not having an assigned seat bothers many people, but I like the honest approach of Southwest and their “On Time” rate. Others may like to get from Boston to New York by 6:00 PM in a time when more planes isn’t an answer and our frustration with our rail systems haven’t been resolved.

    I’m not calling it Lean. I’m only saying that there may be a niche for this.

  2. That last comment is awesome – I think he’s probably right. But I can just hear how this plays out in the boardroom.

    CEO: We need to cater to crowds that like flying coach as well as cordwood.

    Cost Accountant: How about we divide the plane in two and call the seated section “Coach” and the standing section “Cordwood”.

    Marketing Guy: But let’s just call them “1st class” and “coach”. That way we can charge more for both.

    CEO: Brilliant!

  3. I agree that the cost focus in the airline industry is a short sighted view of the industry. At this rate, it seems the airlines will be in the same hole as the car industry. The US airlines are stuck with outdated inefficient airplanes and are losing on cost and comfort the growing airlines are winning with new fleets. Investing so heavily in large planes that rely on huge airports (not flexible) and spoke and hub systems (wasteful travel) will only increase the waste in the industry.

    This blog’s articles have focused on airline travel because of the huge opportunities there.

    I have begun thinking about travel at my own company. Not because we are over our travel budget, but because our budget accounts for a lot of travel each year. We are traveling to sell to customers, address problems at our customers’ level, or address manufacturing and engineering issues. These trips yield results that justify the expense, but what if we fixed the route cause of the travel. We are making huge gains on our factory and office operations in ridding waste of time, eliminating ques, reducing lead-times, improving quality, and it will soon be time to look at others areas of the company.

  4. If there is a “market” for this kind of flying…. who knows. I think American Airlines mistakenly assumes there is a “market” for people to fly on cramped, old airplanes surrounded by cranky, unhappy employees. I fly this airline, but don’t often have much other choice. Their cost decisions have led to all of these poor conditions at American, probably all justified by an accountant saying “the market doesn’t want clean planes with pillows,” see, they keep flying us.


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