Lost Baggage is Management’s Fault


Frustration Grows at Carousel as More Baggage Goes Astray

W. Edwards Deming
is famous (but not famous enough) for pointing out that most errors are the fault of the system and that the system is ultimately management's responsibility, not the individual workers. Yet, in most of our management frameworks, we are quick to blame people — who isn't trying, who doesn't care, etc.

This NY Times article highlights the increase in lost bags since the bans/restrictions on carrying liquids aboard planes.

“…in September, with 183,234 more passengers suffering mishandled bags than a year earlier, up 92 percent.”

This is an example that highlights the cost of poor quality or the cost of NOT doing things right the first time.

“Airlines spend about $2.5 billion to find those bags and deliver them to waiting, often angry, passengers.”

Think of all the effort and motion required to reunite bags with passengers, the labor that's required, the technology that's required. Managers and workers have to be paid to do “rework” because the system didn't work right the first time. The article points out “only” less than 1% of bags are misplaced as if that's acceptable — it's far from Six Sigma quality levels to say the least.

The article starts down the path of blaming management, albeit indirectly:

“Efforts are under way to fix two of the worst baggage operations in the United States — at US Airways in Philadelphia and at Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which operates as Delta Connection here. Both airlines had scrimped on workers and equipment at these airports.”

Not having enough workers or equipment — clearly management's responsibility is to do so. In any operation, particularly a Lean one, it's management's job to understand the “Standardized Work” for tasks that are required. It should be known and documented how much labor and equipment is required to handle passenger and bag volumes for average days, for peak travel periods, etc. It's management's job to properly match “supply” (workers and equipment) with “demand” (passenger levels).

It's also management's job to PLAN for the busy periods. What is your plan for the holidays? That probably involves hiring temporary workers. But what is your plan for training them? A Lean airline would have good Standardized Work to help bring new employees up to speed. A Lean airline would also invest in error proofing methods and technology (if needed) to PREVENT bags from being lost. A Lean operation would have a plan in place — what happens if volume spikes suddenly? You'd have to anticipate that stricter TSA rules might lead to a ban on carry on bags. What if the TSA bans carryons altogether some day? Management has a responsibility to have a contingency plan for that and a Standardized Work plan for meeting that volume spike.

It seems that airlines UNDERinvest in workers and equipment and then pay for it by OVERspending in the rework and wasted motion required to find bags after they are lost. That's without mentioning the customer ill will and the cost of angering customers and your bad reputation as an airline. I hope it would be cheaper for airlines to not lose bags in the first place. I hope they haven't made a financial decision that it's cheaper to find bags after the fact (and to lose some) then it is to have the right staffing and equipment levels.

Do you want more proof that this is management's fault? Look at the case study below. Management was focused more on cost cutting than service. But what about the cost of poor quality? I guess it was easier to ignore the “hypothetical” cost of lost bags than it was to spend more on the proper staffing levels. Executives are distracted by mergers instead of paying full attention to the customer.

Many of the bag-handling problems are because of the industry's cost-cutting.

US Airways, twice in bankruptcy since Sept. 11, 2001, and then merged a year ago with America West Airlines, had a baggage meltdown at its Philadelphia hub around Christmas of 2004. Executives said they had known they needed to add people and equipment there. Some of that occurred. And through July of this year, fewer bags were going missing.

But with the surge of checked bags in August, the hub's bag-handling performance began “backsliding,” said J. Scott Kirby, president of the airline. “A lot of balls in the air with the merger,” he said. “This one didn't get done as well as it should have.”

Crews at Philadelphia, for instance, were short of equipment and fighting over the tractors — known as tugs — that they use to pull baggage carts.

“There's a real lack of organization on the ramp in Philadelphia,” he added, where three-to-four times as many bags are misplaced as at other US Airways hubs.

US Airways is hiring 190 additional workers and 60 managers to fix the bag mess. The company is also buying more tractors, but is still about 40 short of its needs.

“We're not going to fix the thing overnight,” Mr. Kirby said.

It doesn't give you much confidence that they know how to fix it at all.

Another problem is a cheapness on the airlines' part — hiring minimum wage workers and dealing with high turnover. Wouldn't it be cheaper to spend a little more and reduce turnover and training costs? Remember the In-N-Out story?

We can only hope that airline Lean efforts, like the one at United Airlines, carry over into baggage handling and over to other airlines. I've heard rumors in the past that Northwest and some other airlines tinker around with Lean. They certainly could use it.

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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.


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