My Flight Attendants Coffee Kaizen: A Lean Journey in the Skies


As a very frequent flyer on American Airlines, I've learned not to expect much from the company and its employees in terms of customer satisfaction (yet alone anything that would unexpectedly delight a customer). It seems like a company culture of cost cutting — especially on the backs of pilots, flight attendants, and crew. The company has a pattern of getting into financial trouble and then forcing big pay cuts on workers… and then the executives give themselves big bonuses for “saving” the company.

No wonder many flight attendants are grumpy, if not downright hostile. It's not bad people, it's the system (I try to remind myself).

But, occasionally, you might find an American employee who still has that spark that leads to service and creativity…

One thing I don't expect on a flight is good coffee. If it's hot and drinkable, that's fine. When coming back to pour refills, the flight attendant said:

“I did a little something different with this pot… tell me if you like it. I took the small in-room Starbucks pack from my hotel room this morning and I added it to the regular coffee. Tell me if it makes a difference.”

She had identified a problem (“the coffee's not very good normally, is it?”) and she implemented a classic “kaizen” style improvement — it was a small, low-cost, low-risk improvement that would benefit customers. She had a sense of pride that she was trying to do something nice, to make an improvement.

She then tested the change, at least by asking my opinion (it was better).

I wonder if she will make this part of her regular routine (at least on the first flight of the day)?

One thing that's lacking (I'm assuming) that would be part of the kaizen model is the flight attendant collaborating with her supervisor or manager on the improvement — not to get “approval” per se, but to bounce the idea back and forth in a collaborative way. A kaizen-style supervisor can help share and spread good ideas to other flight attendants, if American had a kaizen culture.

American's purchasing department is probably buying the cheapest coffee that would be barely passable by the customers (they are probably not heeding Dr. Deming's advice to “End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone”).

Does American have a staff suggestion program? Is there a formal way for this flight attendant to share her idea with others? Is there a way for them to recommend that American spend a tad bit more on coffee to improve quality??

I'm hesitant to say what flight I was on, because I fear American would react by punishing the flight attendant for not following procedure (our coffee might be bad, but at least it's made according to a consistent process). They might punish her for “tampering” with the coffee.

But, as a customer, I'm glad she took the initiative and, as a Kaizen promoter, I'm happy to see people taking initiative. It's too bad American can't build a culture where everybody works together instead of management starting wars with their employees, killing cooperation and any hope of improving service.

Read more about this sad history of airline worker mistreatment at American…

“The same management team that took hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses while the airline was losing money now wants workers to pay a high price for their mistakes.”

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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. Kudos to the flight attendant and you rightly pointed out that there likely isn’t a management system to support the front-line worker in improvement. I would add that there isn’t likely a system to set standards. How good should the coffee be? Better than McDonalds? Good enought for the airline executives that have to drink it? Good enough that we only get 20 complaints per month?

    Having working in aircraft maintenance, I at least feel comfortable knowing that aircraft maintenance standards aren’t arbitrary.

    I think one primary reason hospitals struggle on service improvement is the lack of bonafide standards. And even when we have standards, we almost never tie the standard to process capability. Heck, we see wait times as a goal and not as a process to be managed.

    Healthcare is very much a target rich environment for improvement. Let’s go have some fun.

  2. Not unlike when McDonald’s hired new corporate chef, and in a cost cutting move, he eliminated salt & pepper from the burgers.

    Now, McD’s burgers are far from gourmet, but when you’re in the restaurant business and choose to take the TASTE out of food, you take your CUSTOMERS out of your business.

    American, with a systemic problem running an airline, chooses to cut “fat” and believe customers will still come out of loyalty or lack of an alternative.

    Is United picking up American’s slack? If not, who is?

    • Cheryl – Interesting about McDonald’s. One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read was about the beer business (focused on the Heineken and the family behind the brewery) — “Beer Blast” by Philip Van Muching. The book discussed how one of the formerly premium beer makers (Schlitz) kept cheapening their formula – they would go from formula A to B and nobody could taste the difference. Then from B to C, nobody could taste the difference. By the time they got to even cheaper formula M (cutting back on barley malt, less aging, and other general skimping), the difference from A to H was HUGE and Schlitz was now a crappy beer. They blamed the MBAs overruling the brewmaster.

      I think American has done that to itself — they cheapen the product and the service and they still think they are a premium product. Nope.

      JetBlue and Virgin American offer a much better product, being new and not yet having beaten down their employees the way the old mainline carriers seem to do.

      And people seem to like working for Southwest, it seems.

  3. You’re correct about the flight attendant probably getting in trouble for doing what most would consider going above and beyond the call of duty. That’s the problem with the majors these days. The work groups are divided. The airlines have created this situation for a couple of reasons by forcing the groups to place blame on each other when things go wrong. Someone has to take the blame. And that same someone usually doesn’t have a job for long. Instead of making improvements and finding ways to create a better airline, we’re all pointing fingers and/or laying low. It’s sad.

    • Heather – it all seems to stem from really horrible management, at least after Bob Crandall left AA (and maybe things had already started to go downhill with employee relations… I’m not an expert on company history, but I do read the local DFW papers’ business pages and I fly AA between 70 and 90k miles a year. Although that will change, given an alternative. I’ll drive an hour to Austin to fly JetBlue, when I can, instead of flying AA out of my new home in San Antonio.

      My sympathies to those working at the old guard carriers.

  4. Hi Mark,

    It’s funny how a vignette like the one you are sharing often provides real insight into an organization’s cultural health. We get to/are forced to see the gemba when we fly, and it’s tough not to notice the often less than ecstatic demeanor of the flight attendants (perhaps Southwest excluded).

    It’s important to visit the less accessible gembas within our businesses not only to identify opportunities to eliminate waste, uneveness, and overburden, but also to assess employee engagement and morale.

  5. Reminds me of a (mostly) really nice cafe in north London where you can get a cracking Full English Breakfast on a lazy Sunday morning. They obviously take time to get good bacon, handmade sausages, quality black pudding etc. But they have really cheap, thin vinegary tomato ketchup. I once told the manager on duty that I liked the food but the ketchup was letting it all down and could they get something decent? Heinz would be great. She just replied that lots of people had said the same thing.

    Nothing changed.

    • Rob – is this cafe an independent establishment where the manager should be able to talk to the owner (and maybe the owner doesn’t care) or is this part of a larger company that undoubtedly has it’s “standard ketchup” that’s chosen by (as Bob Lutz would say) “bean counters” instead of “restaurant guys”?

  6. I used to fly American when I was a trade show manager around 2002. Then they had more legroom, better services and more flight options. When they took that all away, I chose another airline – and quickly.

    In healthcare, many hospitals are in crisis mode which makes leadership less willing to risk change, especially to something like Lean which takes the decision making out of their exclusive grip. When times get tough, they circle the wagons, look out for each other, and as in the case of AA, the front line workers end up bearing the brunt of the aftermath.

    Interesting how when the old ways don’t work anymore, we become less willing to abandon them.

  7. To add to this unusual spark of customer service at AA, I just flew from MIA to LAX and ordered an alcoholic beverage. The flight attendant told me, at least twice and very professionally, that I would need to wait a little because she needed to get the juice from the back somewhere. I was fine with that – it’s not like I was going anywhere! But to my very pleasant surprise, when she finally brought me the drink and I handed her my credit card, she said “I am not charging you because you waited very patiently for your drink”. Customer service in the airline industry has managed to survive extinction – at least on rare occassions…


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