PDCA at the TSA?


ABC News: Airport Security To Be Easier for Families?

I am probably giving the Transportation Security Agency waaaaaay too much credit here, but this story made me think of the “PDCA” cycle of “Plan Do Check Act” (known as the Shewhart cycle or the Deming cycle).

The Transportation Security Administration is experimenting with checkpoint lanes designed for families to ease the pressure on parents struggling through an airport with young children.

In one of the first efforts to ease airport security for infrequent travelers, “family” lanes are being tested at the Denver and Salt Lake City airports alongside “expert” lanes for travelers who know every nuance of security screening and lanes for “casual” travelers.

The emphasis on “experimenting” is mine. That's what PDCA is all about — a small-scale experiment to see if an idea works or not. We often do that in the Lean approach, where someone has a theory (hopefully somewhat thought out) that making a change will improve a system. Supervisors might probe and ask why that idea is a good one or the best alternative. More often than not, we want people to make at least a small-scale trial with an idea, such as this TSA policy.

The article continues:

Segregated lanes could open around the country if the tests show the concept speeds up security lines.

That's the key — spread the concept (“Act”) if tests show (“Check”) that the implemented concept (“Do”) works well. If not, kill the program (another form of “Act”) and try something new.

I've self-segregated myself in airport lines for a long time. Given a choice, I'd alway prefer to get behind an “expert traveler” instead of a family juggling a few kids and all of their stuff.

The concept is criticized in the article by someone with a somewhat undisclosed conflict of interest. Oh well, bad reporting. Of course the guy who wants to SELL expedited security passes to frequent travelers doesn't want the TSA to improve flow — that lessens demand for his product.

So this policy seems OK to me — if it's proven to work. But, then again, I don't have kids. How do those of you with kids feel about the policy?

Either way, maybe you can use this as an example of PDCA when you're talking about it in your workplace. My headline would have been better if I had called it “PDSA at the TSA” (Plan Do Study Act, an alternative way of saying the same concept).

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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. I’m with you, Mark. It’s nice to see some testing going on, rather than a mandate from an uninformed bureauctrat from “on high” to put something new in place. I’ll be curious to follow this story to see how the “study/check” and “act” phases of the testing are handled.

  2. Yes good point, Dean. A non-PDCA approach would roll out the same process EVERYWHERE without testing first. We’ll see what happens.

  3. Another question — is it “OK” for them to fail if the piloted process does NOT meet their objectives? That’s a key part of PDCA, that people shouldn’t be punished if they have a reasonable idea that does NOT work out for some reason.

  4. Isn’t it a little absurd to claim that anytime one implements a process by which an idea is tested on a small scale and then the results are checked before attempting to reproduce it on a larger one?

    I think that something called “science” was around a little bit before the Deming Cycle and contains similar suggestions for application.
    My point here is that if we’re going to see lean in areas where it wasn’t originally applicable (education, health care delivery, etc.)- it’s also worthwhile to point out that some of its ideas are just business applications of existing paradigms.

    That said, this is a great idea and might actually work in some airports.
    The issue I see with it is that it requires self-segregation at times against self-interest.

    Let’s accept that everyone’s idea in airport security lines is to get through them as quickly as possible, I think it’s reasonable to assume, for the purposes of modeling, that no one enjoys TSA lines.
    So called “expert” lines should move the quickest and therefore have the shortest apparent wait time, this in turn will lead to “casual” travelers and even perhaps family travelers to select the “expert” line screwing up its queue.

    At least, I don’t see these ideas as enforceable and without actually forcing families into a separate queue, against their possible self interest in getting into the shortest/fastest line, etc.

  5. J Thatcher – I’m not saying what the TSA is doing is “lean.” I’m just saying it reminds me of the PDCA process (scientific methods).

    If scientific thinking and evidence-based decisions were more widespread (instead of expert fiat or management mandate), then we wouldn’t be talking about things like this.

    Don’t forget the primary goal of security is preventing bombs and weapons from getting through. And the evidence shows the TSA is still doing a lousy job of that.

    Article Link

  6. Ha – too true.

    The TSA fails at its job, and yet thousands of flights take off and land every month (I have no idea on flight density, so if that number is high or low, my apologies).

    So, if the TSA is failing at its primary purpose, what then is the purpose of this application?

    I assume you read the TSA’s “blog,” it can at times be highly amusing.

  7. I flew out of Salt Lake the other week with my wife and three month old boy, and I rather enjoyed the family line because there was no line.

    Intuitively I think this would allow the “expert” passengers to go through the line more quickly, but may decrease time for families (if there are a large number of families in line at any particular time…in my case I didn’t see many other families at 6:00 am). The variability caused by the passenger time requirements to go through the line would be reduced at all of the expert lines’ scanners (assuming most experts need the same amount of time hence low variability) and increased at the family lines’ scanners (again, assuming there is wide variation in families’ time required to go through the line).

    I don’t think this plan would necessarily decrease overall system wait time, and I hope that isn’t their criterion for evaluating the idea.

    I would also be interested if the apparent effectiveness of this idea would change by time of day.


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