So, I Finally Left an iPad Behind in an Airplane Seatback Pocket


The “Miracle on the Hudson” was 10 years ago today. Read my blog post about hearing Sully speak at an event last year.

I got my first (and only) iPad in early 2014. I use many Apple products, but I'm hardly an early adopter. I don't have an Apple Watch, I'm using a MacBook Pro and an iMac from two to five years ago. My first iPhone was the iPhone 3GS.

I normally have the laptop, and iPad, and phone with me when I travel (which is a lot). I have easily flown 400+ flight segments in the past four years. I don't use the iPad on every flight, but I use it a lot to read the Wall St. Journal and Kindle Books.

But, let's say I've used the iPad on 250 flights. Some of those flights don't have a seatback pocket because it was a bulkhead. So, let's say I used the iPad on 230 flights.

I finally, just last week, left an iPad behind when I got off the plane. I've had some near misses where I started to get up at the end of the flight and then realized, oh grab the iPad.

It was a matter of time before I left one behind. I could have told myself “be more careful,” but we're all human, so we're at risk of human error.

When my wife and I got to baggage claim, I realized I didn't have the iPad in my backpack. As seasoned travelers, we don't normally check bags, but her foot is in a boot after some surgery.

While we were waiting for our bags, I called the airline and asked them what I should do. The American Airlines rep told me I should go to the baggage services office — which could be found near claim 20 or 30.

I flipped a coin and walked toward the 30 end. There was no office. Blurgh. I walked toward the other end and found the office near claim 24.

Kaizen” opportunity — The airline should make sure their phone agents have correct information about this sort of thing.

Thankfully, there wasn't a line and the woman in the office was very friendly and helpful. She called the gate and learned that, yes, they had found the iPad in the seatback pocket. I could wait for it, but with my wife's foot, our bags coming, and a late evening arrival, I asked if I could come back the next day. Sure, she told me, writing down a name and number to call the next day.

There are plenty of other Kaizen opportunities for American (and some for myself, which I'll get to later).

When I called the next morning, the person I talked to seemed to think they didn't have my iPad after some checking. Sigh. They took my info and said they would call when they found it.

About six hours later, I hadn't heard anything, so I called again. A different person checked and said, “Yes, we have it here, so come on in.”

Kaizen opportunity — When you say you're going to call the customer, follow through on that.

I drove back to the airport and went inside. The person I talked to at the counter checked and said they didn't have it. They'd have to call the gate again. I wondered, “Why didn't the gate send it to the office last night or this morning?”

I was a bit frustrated, but waited as patiently as I could. A few minutes later, somebody came out of the back office exclaiming, “No, we have it… here it is! Can I see your driver's license?”

As I had tweeted about some of this, my friend Kay Kendall (a quality improvement expert) shared a story similar to what happened to me:

Yup, it seemed that the airline found, then lost, then found, then lost, then again found my iPad after I had originally lost it :-)

Well, it wasn't lost… I knew where it was when I last saw it, LOL.

A former colleague of mine had a funny story (but irritating to him at the time, I'm sure):

Kaizen opportunity: When you find an item and you know which customer it belongs to… call them!

Another tweeter tweeted:

I wondered if the airline COULD not or WOULD not do anything until Monday?

All of this made me wonder how often items are lost. It seems that the airport office had “a lot of iPads from December,” as they put it.

A New Way to Create Value?

As I blogged about yesterday, value is defined by the customer. And different customers will make different choices about what they value and what they will pay for.

Airlines do all sorts of things to unbundle what's paid for with the ticket. For example, instead of free drinks, the people who want them and value them can choose to pay. Some like these choices and some get annoyed by being nickeled and dimed, as they see it.

I hate to be the guy who suggests new “revenue streams” for an airline. But, instead of starting to charge customers for something that used to be free, maybe they could find ways to create new value that some customers would be willing to pay for.

I wonder what would happen if the airline offered something like a subscription service for “premium lost and found.” This might only be of value to frequent flyers, but it could be a form of “lost item” insurance.

Maybe the airline could offer a level of customer service that's more enthusiastic and more efficient than something that reminds you of a bad USPS service counter (I'm not saying all Post Offices are bad… but some still are).

With the revenue brought in by this service (again, I'm making wild assumptions here), maybe the airline could hire some dedicated staff people to provide this value to customers?

What are my Kaizen Opportunities?

Well, I could post a “Be More Careful” sign on the seatback in front of me, reminding me:

The flight crews often make announcements about “make sure you have all of your belongings,” but that's easy to tune out as a frequent flyer.

I'd like to think I forgot the iPad because I was out of our normal travel process since I was focused on helping my wife, getting her crutch down from the overhead bin, etc.

The reality is it was MY fault. I had stopped reading on the iPad mid flight. But, I put it in the seatback pocket. This created an opportunity to forget to then put it in my backpack that was under the seat in front of me.

Some would remind me that seatback pockets are full of germs (worse than a toilet handle) and that I shouldn't use it at all. Good point.

Kaizen Commitment: I'm going to stop using the seatback pocket. When I don't need my iPad, I'll put it directly in my bag.

I think that process change might be a form of error proofing. I can test this hypothesis in practice, but I think it will work.

Somebody on Twitter questioned my reaction:

Good question. I don't think I need to rely on data here. It's one failure out of about 230 opportunities. Would I be likely to do this again on my next flight? Probably not, especially with this episode fresh in my mind. But, it's bound to happen again. I'd rather not have to chase it down and bother the airline people again.

In the Lean approach, we often error proof against risks, including the risk of safety problems or quality issues. What we need to guard against is layering MORE work on top of the existing work if we're trying to prevent a rare problem. In my situation, putting the iPad in my bag is a simple process change (not a “redesign”) that adds maybe a bit more bending. That's not much additional effort. I think that's worth doing.

What do you think?

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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.


    • LOL. True story: about five years ago, I ended up randomly next to Flava Flav at a roulette table in Vegas. He was, indeed, wearing a clock (analog) around his neck on a chain. The guy to the other side tried to talk to him and got a terse response of “Don’t talk to me when I’m playing.” Good times.

  1. I like your minor process change. As both a frequent traveler and a lean learner as well, I will be learning from your failure and adopt your process change to my process! Thank you for sharing and therefore preventing me from something that would’ve otherwise day happened to me as well!

  2. I too travel a lot, and have left things behind. Most recently it was a book (a recent gift) that I realized almost immediately after leaving the secure area. As the aircraft was still de-planing and cleaning, I was able to talk to the luggage clerk in baggage claim and get routed back to the gate via a temporary security pass.

    Thinking about when and how this has happened, my recent one or two events were unusual travel situations. This one was vacation, and so worried about the kids. Another was on a re-routed travel leg, so worried about making a connection. Hrm…

  3. I like your idea of error proofing your part of the process by putting the iPad in your backpack when not in use rather than the seat pocket.

    Not so keen on the suggestion for airlines to charge for lost and found so they can hire dedicated staff to deal with the cost of managing lost and found for two reasons: 1. Seasoned travelers while statistically more likely to lose or forget something based on the # of trips they make are also more likely to be aware or have personal processes for not making the error in the first place. Thus the thinking it will be used mostly by seasoned travelers I think is incorrect and the people charged will be those that actually do not fly often – these people (which I am one) will not find it valuable to have to pay for this service. 2. In my limited experience of flying, those times when something is lost is of no fault of the customer. Thus the suggestion is saying that I, the customer, should pay for the company’s error which again I don’t find value in that.

    Another suggestion for the airline might be to eliminate the waste in the lost and found items process by building standard work for the handling of such items that includes the customer. I’ve done something similar with donated items in healthcare. While receiving donations and having things given for free is a blessing it can also be a curse. I’ve worked with teams to 5S such items and also to build standard work for how to say no or stop the donations for a period of time when inventory of donated items gets too high. In doing so, we don’t spend additional time in handling or accepting donated items and we’ve not had to add more staff to the mix to handle the process. Our volunteers that give items are also very understanding and have worked with us to ensure we have only what we need when we need it. I think the airlines can do the same with lost and found through the use of 5S principles and tools and by standardizing their processes for managing and handling the items. I think they will find they have more than enough time and the right number of resources to manage the lost and found. When someone does lose something they might also take that opportunity to provide some training on how to avoid or identify the error in the first place. In the end their customers may be much happier with the customer service provided and less likely to lodge complaints.

    Thanks for another great post – it’s really got me thinking!

    • Thanks for your comments Corinne. What I was brainstorming about was passengers opting in to pay for a premium lost-and-found service. It’s probably a bad idea.

      I think error proofing to prevent leaving items behind is a better strategy than improving the lost-and-found process. But, people are going to leave items (hopefully not me). I agree they should have better processes and standardized work for keeping track of items and returning them.


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