Bad Systems in the News: PHX TSA


Serious Security Questions at Sky Harbor Airport

New interim security director named at Sky Harbor

Here's another story from last week about bad systems, and bad management to boot. This one hits close to home since I used to fly out of Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport quite regularly.

In the first linked article, the local Phoenix ABC affiliate did an investigative piece about how the “secure” terminal was basically left wide open all night, with guards who were either sleeping or not checking people who came through. Part of the story:

“We've discovered a 4.5 hour time frame each night when virtually anything can be brought into the secure side of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. There's no metal detector, no X-ray machine, and it's apparently not a problem.

Afraid to show her face, one long time Sky Harbor employee talks about the security most people don't see.

Lisa Fletcher: “You're telling me Sky Harbor's not safe?”

Employee: “I'm telling you Sky Harbor's not safe and hasn't been for a long time.”

It's what we discovered in the middle of the night – TSA agents going away, and security guards taking over. It's 4.5 hours – every night – when an employee badge becomes an all-access pass.”

What makes this a “bad system?” The fact that so many employees knew about this glaring weakness and TSA management did nothing about it. Apparently, the TSA isn't a “Lean” organization where management appreciates employees bringing up problems. It's probably more of a “keep your mouth shut” environment, I'd guess. It's a bad security system, on the surface, but deeper (and more importantly) it's a bad management system.

I'm sure employees tipped off the TV station, who came to watch:

“In the time we watched, dozens made it past this checkpoint, bags unchecked.”

Yikes! The station claims that airport officials had known about the security problems for TWO YEARS.

The airport employee we talked with said she is afraid.

“No one's doing anything about it,” she said. “Management knows. I know management knows. I know my superiors know. I know the security guards know. Everybody knows what's going on, but nobody's doing anything about it.”

I wonder how high the “chain of fear” runs? Why wasn't anyone willing or able to step up and say “we have a problem, we need help”? Here's an illustration of what happens when an organization's people are afraid to speak up. Deming always said that management needed to eliminate fear from the workplace. I think that might have helped the TSA.

So, as the second linked article says, the Phoenix TSA director was placed on administrative leave as they investigate. I wonder if the TSA will just blame that person or look for more systemic causes for the inaction? Why stop at just the local Phoenix level? Who knew, higher up in the TSA?

The response from the TSA and the City of Phoenix (scroll down in the second link) has a lot of doublespeak. No rules were being violated, but they're changing the practices to make sure the terminals are secure 24/7.

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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. Clearly the TSA director was ignoring thier own guidelines allowing unsecured areas.

    I wouldn’t guess there was any systemic reason for the directors lapse. I would assume the director chose not to staff the personnel for the 4.5 hours for budgetary reasons. I couldn’t think of any other excuse.

  2. Maybe the director was afraid to ask for more funds.

    I’m sure you’d agree the lack of funds is no excuse. If you’re running a factory and you have budget problems, you wouldn’t cut corners on safely or other core practices (unless you’re a Chinese toy factory, then you’d substitute cheaper lead based paints, but that’s a different story).

    They should find other ways to reduce expenses! Or, get the proper funds needed to do a proper job. Proper safety is much cheaper to society than a terrorist attack!

  3. Afraid to ask for more funds or decided to accept the risk to make his/her budget look better. I don’t know the details, I’m just speculating.

    It might be a similar situation regarding the Minnesota bridge. Prior to last week if someone wanted a budget to inpsect/improve US bridges they would be laughed at. It takes a tradgedy to make these kind of changes.

    I guess 9/11 wasn’t enough to get 24/7 coverage at the Phoenix airport.


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