What airport security has in common with manufacturing.

It’s too bad TSA employees can’t publicly tell their half of the story, I’m sure they are just as unhappy delivering “pat downs” as passengers are receiving them.  This is a process ripe for improvement.  It also has all the classic trappings of a manufacturing process that is full of constraints limiting change.

As I lined up at about 5:30 AM in the morning in the Dublin airport to go through security I was pleasantly surprised.  Change is possible:  Rather than the traditional process of picking up a plastic bin out of a large stack to place my laptop, belt, shoes and jacket there was a difference.  By looking at the passenger ahead of me, it was apparent that I was supposed to use the bin sliding towards me in a metal track mounted on the side of the x-ray conveyor belt.

It struck me that I was experiencing true one piece flow, the goal of a lean process.  As I placed my items into the bin and slowly moved forward towards the x-ray machine, the empty bins were sliding to my left for the passenger behind me.  Powering those bins were the passengers who had collected their belongings and had placed the now empty bin in the track that continued along the length of the whole conveyor belt.  A slight push from the passenger moved the bins to the left.

I stayed for a couple of minutes after I was cleared and continued to watch.  I really wanted to take a video, but figured that might be pushing my luck.

Some passengers weren’t quite sure what to do with the empty bin.  The fact that it was 5 am local time might have had something to do with it.  These people were helped by the security attendant who split her time taking bags back through the scanner and helping people put the empty bins into the track.

There was another difference too.  There were no stacks of bins sitting on carts on either end of the conveyor belt.  Because there were no stacks of bins, there were no bin attendants collecting the empty bins, stacking them and then pushing the full cart back to the beginning of the line.

Aside from the inconvenience of partially unpacking and undressing; delay and lack of privacy seem to be the primary drivers for customer frustration in the security line.  The one piece flow didn’t increase either of these.  I imagine that over a period of time, the speed is actually faster because passengers aren’t spending time pulling stuck bins from the stack or the inevitable wait for the bin cart to refresh the beginning of the line.  This reduction in time has many benefits throughout the supply chain.  Because the queue is reduced, so is wear, tear and stress on passengers as they drag along more luggage than ever.  The airline benefits from fewer angry passengers due to missed flights or delays in flights as the plane waits a couple of extra minutes for late passengers.

Can you think of a process that has more scrutiny than airport security right now?  Yet Dublin has been slightly improved without causing any negative media attention

This is a smart move by the team that designed the security lines at the Dublin airport.  In additional to reducing the material and labor costs of purchasing and continuously moving the extra bins from one end of the conveyor belt to the other, the changes also improve the customer experience, ensuring that passengers who pass through a security move a little faster and miss fewer connections.

Better service by reducing costs.  That’s an example of innovation we can all appreciate.  In my upcoming book Lean Labor (Look for it in February 2011), there are many examples of how manufacturers can make small changes in their workforce processes to reduce operational expense and increase throughput (or reduce the resources required to maintain throughput).  I’ll also continue to be on the lookout for other examples of workforce innovation that I can highlight on this blog.  If you have any you’d like to share, please send me a note.


3 thoughts on “What airport security has in common with manufacturing.

    1. Good point (and thank you for pointing credit to O & I for the original idea). You’re right, the ideal example of Lean in action is employee driven ideas and execution. In this case what struck me as I walked through security was the challenges that I imagine the team went through in changing the process to capitalize on the improvements. In my experience working with companies, it is often the resistance to change that can stop a great idea. As you suggest, employee driven ideas at least eliminate the resistance from the people who do the work.

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