The Folly of Visual Inspection and the TSA


Just so you know...

I've never been a big fan of the TSA or any form of visual inspection. I wasn't a fan, either, of the automated x-ray technology that was used in (and then removed from) American airports while being banned in Europe over safety concerns.

Relying on 100% human visual inspection doesn't work because, well, we're human. We get bored, we get distracted, and our brains often see what we expect to see rather than the actual signals that are sent from our eyes. Visual inspection often fails whether it's Toyota workers inspecting the paint on a new truck or a pharmacist double checking a medication.

Speaking of pharmacies, I have a prescription medication that is a liquid. It's larger than the 100 ml / 3.4 oz TSA limit.

Each time I have traveled, probably 10 different airport security encounters, I have taken the liquid out of my bag and put it in a bin as to be quite obvious and quite separate from my allowed one-quart bag with toothpaste, etc. I carry the doctor's prescription with me in case I am asked about my oversized liquid as it goes through the conveyor and the x-ray machine.

NOT ONCE has a TSA agent ever asked me about my large liquid. Maybe they know it's a prescription, but you'd also think they'd at least once acknowledge it or ask me, “Hey, what's with that large liquid?”

It doesn't do anything to increase my faith in the TSA and it certainly doesn't increase my faith in the outdated idea of inspecting in quality.

If we're asking employees, in a factory or hospital, to rely on visual inspection as the way of ensuring quality, we have to realize we are setting them up for occasional failure. Yet, when that system fails, why does the individual so often get thrown under the bus instead of the leaders who were responsible for the system?


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Karen Martin says

    Good post, Mark. I share your concerns. Did you happen to see my comment to a Kevin Meyer post several months back about TSA missing a pair of full size scissors in my computer bag?

    1. Mark Graban says

      Yeah. Nothing about TSA surprises me. Their incompetence is the norm, I guess.

  2. Walter Reade says

    Once I missed the baggage check-in deadline for a flight when I had (literally) half a suitcase full of high-end skin- and hair-care products (to be given as gifts at my destination). They told me I had to carry the bag on and plane-side check it.

    I figured I was doomed at security, but didn’t want to pre-emptively ditch hundreds of dollars worth of gifts, so I decided to see what happened.

    To your point, not a single question was raised.

    That’s why the principle of Jidoka is so powerful. You get the benefit of 100% inspection without having to rely on human judgement, which is 3 sigma capable at best.

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