Airplane Food: Flight Attendant Kaizen or a Violation of Standardized Work?
Today's blog post is about airplane food. It's not about the quality of airplane food… it's not an SNL Seinfeld-ish “what's the deal with airplane food?” rant, if you remember that classic sketch.
As I've sometimes blogged about, I fly American Airlines quite often and I've gained Executive Platinum frequent flyer status. I'm grateful that the status means I get upgraded about 90% of the time.
I'm always fascinated by the variation in service provided by flight attendants in first class.
Sometimes, they offer water and beverages before take off… sometimes, they don't.
Sometimes, they say hello and address you by name after takeoff… sometimes, they don't.
Sometimes, they thank you for being a top-level frequent flyer… sometimes, they don't.
It always makes me wonder what practices are suggested, optional, or an informal standard.
When a meal is served on a flight, there's a usual protocol and procedure… what might be considered “standardized work” in the context of Lean.
If you haven't pre-ordered your meal, the flight attendant might say:
“Mr. Graban, will be you having lunch with us today? We have an option of chicken with couscous or cheese pasta. Which would you like?”
Different flight attendants might use different words, but that's OK since “standardized work” doesn't mean they always use the exact same words… the flight attendants aren't robots, of course.
On a recent flight, the process followed by the flight attendant struck me as being different… very different than the norm.
I wondered, “Are they empowered to practice Kaizen if they've found a better way to do things… or are they violating standardized work?”
The flight attendant had a print out of the flight's meals that included a description and photos. It looked like something just printed on a normal color inkjet printer. It wasn't a professionally printed menu like they'd have on an international flight. It was regular paper. Hmmm.
He sort of shoved that paper toward the passenger in the aisle seat and the passenger grabbed it.
“#1 or #2?” barked the flight attendant somewhat tersely.
“Do you want bread?” he said, as he pointed at pictures of the bread options (a multi-grain roll, a sourdough bread, or something else… I'm not really into bread).
Normally, the flight attendant comes by with a basket of bread and gives you a choice.
This flight attendant's approach was different. I'm not sure if it was better or worse… it was different. That was sort of jarring.
The passenger handed the paper back to the flight attendant who then shoved it toward me.
“#1 or #2?”
I had been on a very similar flight a few days earlier and the food options were exactly the same as that other flight.
“I'll have the chicken please… no bread, thank you.”
I guess I should have said “#1.”
It made me wonder why this flight attendant was taking dinner orders this way when I've NEVER seen another flight attendant do this.
On this route to San Francisco, are there more passengers where language might be a barrier?
Did the flight attendant find this method more efficient, since he didn't need to talk as much?
If the flight attendant thought this method was better, is there a mechanism for him to ask American Airlines headquarters for permission, or is he just empowered to work his own way?
Is there a mechanism for him to suggest his method as a new (better?) standard? Or, again, do flight attendants feel empowered to develop their own process?
I'm sure the answers to these questions would be different if it were a safety issue under the jurisdiction of the FAA.
I wonder if American Airlines knows the flight attendant is working this way? How do they supervise the flight attendants? If a senior flight attendant were on board to observe, would the flight attendant still work this way or would they do things by the book?
Does American Airlines value employee autonomy or would the airline say a consistent experience is more important?
There are no easy answers, eh?
Hearkening back to the Seinfeld SNL sketch, “Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?”
Of course, Anthony Bourdain thinks I'm crazy for eating airplane food. You can see why… here's the cheese pasta I tried to eat a few days later, when they were already out of the chicken. I mean, here is #2:
Update: I've also posted a version of this story on the FlyerTalk website to see what the response is from other travelers. So far the responses are along the lines of “is this a problem?” and that the flight attendant is being “innovative.”
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