Lean Concepts at the Airport


I had my Lean goggles on at the airport last week and took two pictures of some Lean concepts in action.

First off is a typical FedEx drop box. I've seen this before, but I love the simple visual control that's employed. Has today's pickup been done today?? It's sure easy to tell. I wonder if this visual control gets deployed “automatically” when the FedEx person picks up packages or if they rely on “remembering” to do so?

Next, we see a boarding pass for Northwest. Living in the DFW area, I normally fly American Airlines. It's interesting, sometimes, to see how things go on another airline. With most airlines, if you have a connecting flight, you get two separate pieces of paper whether you print at home or get your pass at the airport.

Northwest COMBINES them into one single piece of paper with a single bar code. I'm sure this saves a ton of paper each year. You just have to be careful, as the passenger, that you realize it's a single pass and that you don't mistakenly throw it out or leave it in your seatback pocket of the first flight.

I wonder if this came from an employee suggestion at some level in the organization? Or from a customer? It would be great if more airlines copied this “kaizen” idea.

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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 just noticed this Northwest innovation on my last flight. I always hated the struggle to manage carry-on and have the right boarding pass in my hand. Great, simple innovation. Saves some cost too.

  2. Wouldn’t it make even more sense to put the bar code on one of those concert wrist bands, the kind that don’t come off without breaking? They could put it on after checking your ID. That would serve as ID, boarding pass, security pass, etc. and you would never have to juggle it, lose it, look for it, hold it out while holding all your other stuff, etc.

  3. Eric H – that’s probably a good idea, but that change would require a lot of ongoing costs.

    What I love about the NWA change is that it represents a kaizen that saves money over time (paper) through what might have been a small investment (programming/software change).

  4. Mike Lombard shared this example via Twitter, how Whole Foods uses BOTH sides of the receipt paper (which beds the question why they don’t give you the option of saying “no receipt, please”).


  5. I think Lean and efficiency all the time at the airport. My last position required me to travel quite a bit. The biggest hangup I had is with boarding and unboarding the plane. I would love to be part of a airliner design group. I would definitely push Lean concepts for minimizing boarding and unboarding time. Think how much time could be saved if passengers could get on and off the plane quicker.

    I remember reading an article about one airline doing studies of trying to board by window seat first instead of by aisle number.

  6. Larry- People CAN get off the plane fast if they have to… check out the 100+ that got off of that US Air flight in about 15 seconds when it “landed” in the Hudson! Now… can anyone learn something from that?!


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