Lean Six Sigma for Airports: My "Meet Cute"?

I have a confession: For quite a while I didn't really get how the "manufacturing mindset", in so far as it relates to the concept of Lean, applied to airport operations. I just couldn't grasp the application of the philosophy to an airport.

I think, finally, the meaning of it all has given me a glimpse of its power and I'm keen to learn more. And in my usual style, I plan on doing that publicly, here, on this blog.

So What Clicked?

A couple of weeks ago I tried LinkedIn's Learning platform and the first course I signed up for was a Six Sigma course. I was motivated to do this because other agencies at the airport at which I work are starting to employ these philosophies and I wanted to talk intelligently with them and participate where possible.

I've always been very keen on the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma and have participated in workshops as part of my employment. But building Lego cars in the most efficient way possible never helped me apply the knowledge I've gained to my job of running airports.

To me, the airport just seemed to have to deal with people and planes that came as best we could. We would build infrastructure to suit what we think should be accommodated and maybe we might set limitations on numbers through slot coordination or other "no room at the inn" methods. But active management of a product was eluding my mental model.

My light bulb moment came when the philosophy of Six Sigma was laid out for me and the concept of variability induced a current that ran right through me. Obviously, every day I have dealt with people not doing what I expected them to do. Mostly passengers but even workers seem to defy logic in their actions and even their explanations.

I'm Not That Naive

I've never expected people to be pre-programmed robots moving in the most efficient means necessary. It was more that I didn't have a structure to help me analyse how much of a problem I had or to influence a better way of doing whatever it is we are trying to do.

However, a lot of discussion, instruction and rhetoric involves a high level of process control when using Lean/Six Sigma. For example, if you identify that widget A and sprocket B should be assembled before being attached to flange C, then you can set that up to happen that way.

Now, in an airport environment, if you want the passengers of Flight 123 to be checked in before passengers on Flight 456, you are going to be disappointed. Invariably, some people will be late and some will be early, some will queue in the wrong line and some will miss your repeated calls about the imminent closure of check-in.

The best we can do is influence, guide and support. I was having trouble isolating the process and the philosophy from the implementation because the latter always formed a big part of the explanation for the former. Through a mixture of exposure to the right people, the right circumstance and my own motivation to find a way to make this make sense, I think I'm over these hurdles.

Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

Obviously, if you're reading this and thinking, "Der", well, this post isn't for you.

But if I've piqued your interest and you would like to learn more then I think we're going to have an interesting time exploring these concepts as they apply to airports over the next couple of months.

At the very least, we might discuss a few tools that you can use to get just a little bit better this year. Even before I had my lightning-bolt moment, I'd been using Information Centres and 5S to make improvements. So, let's see how this goes.

I would love to hear about other people's experiences in Lean and Six Sigma as it applies to airports. Please feel free to tell me all about it in the comments below.

Image credits: Header - Neville Wooton & Captain Obvious - I Can Has Cheezburger