Standardized Work for an Airline


Can US Airways Pass Test of Time? –

Saw this about US Airways (LCC), an airline I used to fly a lot when I lived and it was just America West. The airline has struggled through its merger — executive purchase eyes were bigger than their “integrate the companies and cultures” stomach. This WSJ article focuses on COO Robert Isom:

“Next, Mr. Isom insists, US Airways needs to start acting like a single airline, not two separate cultures. Hamstrung by the separate procedures of the predecessor airlines, the company lacked ‘a common focus as to what's important to fix,' he says.

To address late flights, his team assembled a standard departure checklist every department now follows. The new ‘countdown to departure' checklist sets concrete metrics and goals for each workgroup. In the past, varied procedures led to delays of four to six minutes that cascaded across cities. Mr. Isom, who earlier oversaw ground operations and customer service at Northwest Airlines, says, departure planning ‘had not been done in a coordinated fashion.'”

Sounds like standardized work, doesn't it? It does sound like it, it's not necessarily part of any “Lean” implementation that's going on, it's just common sense right? Isn't it amazing sometimes what companies have not formalized into a procedure?

He also tightened the leash on airport station managers who used to have more discretion to delay a flight for connecting passengers or other reasons. That leeway may have worked at smaller America West, but it wreaked havoc at US Airways. The approach left aircraft out of place and caused crew shortages in certain cities. Now, decisions have to be cleared through the airline's centralized operations control center.

Seeing this, you might think “but I thought we were supposed to decentralize thinking and push decisions to the lowest level in the organization.” Sure, but not if that local thinking leads to suboptimization because local managers don't have enough visibility to information, or the right incentives, to allow for system optimization. It seems pretty clear the centralized decision making might be better for the passengers, if not also for the company and the employees.

If this were a Lean project, I'd work to make sure that the Standardized Work had room for flexibility when necessary. Management needs to check to make sure the station managers are following the Standardized Work, rather than just assuming that the published procedure is being followed. But, if the Standardized Work is not being followed, there might be a good reason… people still need to be able to exercise professional judgment, but if they're ALWAYS feeling the need to violate the standard, maybe the Standardized Work wasn't appropriate to begin with?

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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. The necessary “slack” of time and manpower for the workforce to take improvements into reality is missing. There seems to be a tight schedule, manpower in order to make the system work.

    This won’t work for long, as various examples show.

    Rethink the strategy, even though the initial idea is a good one (standardization!).




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