Bad Systems: TSA at DFW Terminal A


I'm going to try to tie this into Lean, or so I think. I had the most mind-numbing experience at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (my home airport, Terminal A, near gate A35, last Monday night (Labor Day).

As I approached the private “security” worker at the podium before the screening, I was starting to hand her my boarding pass and ID, as I've done far too many times this year at different airports, it's always the same drill. You know, they take your boarding pass and scribble five times on it or play a game of Sudoku on it before letting you pass on. This time, the contractor didn't want any of that, she just mumbled something about “mmmbmbmbm laptop…. mmmmbmbm… belt.” I know the drill.

I got a few steps closer to the TSA and it hit me — she hadn't checked my ID and boarding pass. I told the TSA employee this, thinking there was maybe some security threat from the laxness, and the TSA guy mumbled something about “what do you expect?” and took only the most cursory glance at my ID and boarding pass.

At this point, I thought I could A) just move on and not risk saying something that would get me strip searched or arrested or B) say something. Having plenty of time before my flight, I chose door B, I asked to talk to a supervisor. I explained what had happened, basically that NOBODY had checked my ID. The supervisor told me that TSA and/or the airport had officially deemed the contractors to be ineffective at checking ID's, since boarding passes and ID's are too easy to fake and the contractors didn't know what they were looking for. Nice huh? And this isn't the case at other airports?

I guessing that the problem with the contractors might be at least partially a training issue.

The TSA supervisor said they were in the process of “phasing in” the new approach, where the TSA employees would now be checking ID's at that terminal, rather than the contractors. “Um, shouldn't you transition in before the contractors transition out?,” I asked the supervisor. He didn't really have anything constructive to say, other than apologizing, so I didn't push the discussion any more. That's just horrible management and system design (or lack thereof). You don't pull the old person off the job before the new process and training are in place. Our government in action. Or, government inaction.

In part 2 of this post, I'll describe my phone call to the TSA asking about this situation and their response.

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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. This is wrong on so many levels. How can the TSA know that the contractors are incompetent and DO NOTHING ABOUT IT?? I mean, this sounds like a gaping security hole at one of the nation’s biggest airports. Once you know that the person can’t do the job, don’t you immediately put someone in who can do it?

  2. Piling on the broken system, there are two sets of rules. One for the public and the other for airline staff. Over labor day weekend at LAX, I was told I couldn’t bring an unopened 8oz bottle of water for my 7 month old daughter’s formula. Once I cleared “security” I watched a pilot bring through his half-drunk Starbucks. When I asked a TSA supervisor he admitted to the double standard. Remember, it is believed that the pilot brought down EgyptAir Flight 990, killing all on board.

  3. It’s easy to pile on here, but I think the fundamental issue is leadership, or lack thereof. It’s yet another example (think homeland security, passport processing, disaster relief, and too many others) of an inadequate response to a major need by assigning poor leadership and slim resources, and becoming overwhelmed. And, to bring it to a Lean discussion, without needed processes in place. Very sad.

  4. I think its more fair to say the contractor (the firm) is incompetent more than the contractors (the people). Is a lack of training and a lack of proper supervision their fault?

  5. What a depressing story for 9/11. Of course, I’m not sure how checking identification alone is THAT major of a security breach. Does that just help the airline by making sure you aren’t flying on someone else’s ticket? Why is the government doing that for them, anyway??

  6. Checking IDs does no real good and falls under the heading “security theater,” as criminals can easily obtain fake IDs. I suspect that the real answer is that the TSA is switching to more effective measures (e.g. behavior-based profiling), but does not want to advertise this. Bruce Schneier, who has his own blog, has commented on this a number of times and has a multi-part interview with the chief TSA administrator.

  7. If it’s truly “security theatre” then checking ID’s would count as the “waste of overprocessing” then right?

    Why not eliminate this practice and explain why to the public? Let airlines have their own employees check ID’s at the door to make sure people are traveling on their own tickets.


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