The TSA & Explaining "Why"?


Lean was on my brain traveling home yesterday. Mostly bad examples, but one thing jumped out at me, somewhat positive.

I love the TPS notion of “explaining why” (and blogged about it here after touring NUMMI). In the Lean and TPS mindset, you don't just tell people what to do. If you're issuing an instruction, you have to take the extra effort to explain “why”. That shows respect for people, taking that extra effort. This applies to our verbal communications with people, as well as signs that might normally be posted around a factory or workplace.

So, in line for the security line, there was a sign that says “Why a One Quart Bag?” If you're familiar with this security rule, the government line is here. We could debate the merits of the restrictions to no end, but the sign said, basically:

“The one quart bag limits the total amount of liquid and gel that can be carried on board.”

I've been able to fit the following in a one quart bag (and you're limited to 3 oz of any item):

  • Small toothpaste
  • Small hair creme jar
  • Small shaving cream
  • Small face lotion

The bag, in a way, is a “poka yoke” device for the security inspectors. They still have to visually inspect the items so that, God forbid, I don't have a 4 oz. hair gel in there (even if the total amount of liquid/gel is within the quart sized bag limit).

I thought, that's nice that they're explaining the tyranny of the quart-sized bag. I guess part of the advantage of the bag is that they can put that through the x-ray separately. The rule might not make perfect sense, but they're making an attempt to explain why.

But, what if you had a smaller zip lock bag because you only have toothpaste? NO GOOD. Not a quart-sized bag. But the amount of liquid/gel is LESS than a quart-sized bag. NO GOOD. Why?

What if you only had toothpaste and you were willing to put it through the x-ray separately? NO GOOD. Not in a bag. Not in a quart-sized bag.

If the “design objective” is limiting the total amount of liquid, why can't there be multiple ways of accomplishing that? While there's some element of “respect for people” in explaining why to the passengers about the quart-sized bag, is there less “respect for people” in giving the TSA employees ZERO lee-way or judgment? Just follow a rule blindly?

I know I'm wasting my time looking for logic or consistency in the airport rules. But think about these concepts in your workplace. Are you giving hard set rules that your employees aren't allowed to challenge? Are you explaining “why?”

Funny aside, this guy has guts. I like his style. (Note: Kip Hawley is the head of the TSA)

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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. My wife was traveling the other day with her travel-size toothpaste and 3-oz shampoo in a gallon size bag.
    She was told it wasn’t acceptable because the bag was too large. She took the same exact contents, put them into a smaller back she had only by chance, and was allowed to pass.
    Why on earth?
    I see little respect for people and ample blind rule following there.
    It’s right up there with the day I was “wanded” and patted down while wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals.

  2. Some additional thoughts:

    1) It sure would be customer-focused if the airports would standardized (imagine that) and provide quart-sized bags to passengers who didn’t know about the rule. I saw one airport where this was sponsored by a drugstore chain.

    2) What a waste it is to throw out a single tube of toothpaste because you don’t have a bag for it

    3) At O’Hare Friday, I saw someone come through security and then was asking people to borrow their quart sized bag to take back to a friend (who was holding her bag) so she could come back through with the requisite quart-sized back. What waste. But, clever thinking on her part!!

  3. Value stream map this process all the way to the customer (us). Guess what you find–customers unwilling to be part of the lean solution, unwilling to change. I have stopped carrying anything thorugh security other than my laptop. All my liquids and gels are in my checked bag. I have never had a checked bag lost at any airport or from any airline. Even if my bag was lost, I can replace my gels, lotions, pastes, and such for a few bucks–assuming the hotel does not supply them to me for the asking, which most do now. So maybe we should stop bellyaching and trying to game the system and start being part of the lean change.

  4. Before you all explain, perhaps you should be clear about the purpose of this whole thing. The purpose is to stop the bad guys. We know this – the more variatio you throw at a process the less likely it will catch what it’s supposed to. Also, if your rules are flexible then customers know they can negotiate their way through, again distracting from their focus. TSA has many faults, but they have done a decent job on thi one. They have communicated it clearly through their 3-1-1 rule. Perhaps you should all just learn to follow the rules. Or check. On average this has added only minutes to the wait. I think the few minutes you can put up with waiting is a fair price considering the much larger price others have paid for weak security in the skies.


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