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Neil Smith, CEO of Promontory Growth and Innovation, helps Fortune 750 companies dramatically improve performance by increasing profitability.

Existing Processes 2

As a college student, I took lessons to become a pilot. I put in enough flying time to pilot small, single-engine planes that could take up to three passengers. To this day, I enjoy the thrill of flying, not as a pilot anymore but on commercial airlines. I am fortunate that my work takes me to different parts of the globe.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that one recent experience that has detracted from the enjoyment of flying is the security process that we all must go through every time we fly. The process is complicated . . . and different at almost every airport. Many things contribute to making it a slow and cumbersome procedure. In some security queues, you take off your shoes; in others, you leave them on. It is the same with your belt. In one location, it goes through the X-ray machine; in another, it stays around your waist. It never ceases to amaze me that commercial pilots also go through the same rigorous security checks.

I recently saw a pilot undergoing a secondary search. Of course, there is certainly a need for pilots to prove that they are indeed who they say they are, but once that is established, is there really a need to see if they are carrying weapons or other banned materials? Doesn’t a pilot have at his or her fingertips the means to cause untold damage anyway?

It is hardly surprising that the security line is slow and that passengers, confused by the inconsistent rules, get it wrong. And every mistake contributes to a “beep” of the metal detector, which slows the line even further because it indicates that a secondary search has to be done. This slow process happens on one of the few occasions in most people’s lives that it is really important to be on time. It contributes greatly to the stress that now accompanies every trip to the airport.

About two years ago on a trip back from London, I decided to spend some time looking at the security process. My kids thought I was crazy and that I ought to be touring the duty-free shops, but I was intrigued. It quickly became clear that there was a systematic problem with the process. The bottleneck that was slowing down the line was not the inspection of the bags, as I might have expected, but the secondary security check that happened every time there was a beep. When someone passed through the metal detector and was tagged as positive, there was a body search. And every time there was a body search, the entire line was held up. All three security lines worked the same way, and all three had long queues of people waiting to be processed.

Two agents were assigned to do the search on each of the three lines–a female agent for female passengers and a male agent for male passengers. Even though this process seems on the surface very fair to all passengers, it was grossly unfair to female passengers, who were being held up unnecessarily. Over the 30 minutes that I watched these three lines, just over 60 percent of the passengers were male and just under 40 percent were female. Because there were more male passengers than female passengers, it stood to reason that more men would be stopped than women. Every time a male passenger was stopped and body searched (which happened frequently), the female agent stood around doing nothing while the female passengers were also doing nothing–just waiting in line to pass through. The male agent did 60 percent of the body searches and so worked twice as hard as the female agent. There had to be a simple way to improve this process. My mind went to work.

I figured out two ways that the process could be immediately sped up and one longer-term solution that would make it faster still. One simple solution to increase the rate of passenger screening was that if the female agent was idle, to let female passengers go ahead of male passengers. Another solution would be to add a second male agent, so that three people worked the screening process at each line. While allowing women to go ahead of men might seem unfair to the men and having two male agents screen male passengers might look unfair to the women, both solutions would actually help move them through the screening process faster. And where would the extra staff come from? From closing the third line.

It may seem counterintuitive, but passengers would actually be processed faster if they faced two lines each with three security staff rather than three lines with two staff, because security staff downtime would be less. In this case, a simple process change would be a matter of adapting to circumstances and putting resources where the need is.

On days when there were more female passengers than male, the ratio of screening agents would need to be reversed. The required flexibility in staffing would come from other security tasks; for example, those screening bags can be either male or female and their tasks could be changed depending on the requirements of the security line. Both of these short-term fixes could be carried out immediately without the passengers even knowing it was happening. All the passengers would see would be faster lines.

Of course, the real long-term and most efficient solution would be to have a male line staffed by two male agents and a female line staffed by two female agents. Then the line would stop only if you had two passengers with consecutive beeps, one immediately after the other. You could still operate the third line as a “family” line, with one male agent and one female agent.

Here there was a problem with an Existing Process that the security manager could fix in a few different ways. Very proud of my ideas, I approached the security line to ask for the supervisor. He was smart and very quickly understood the potential, but the problem was how to get the solutions implemented. He had no authority to make changes and was pretty confident that if he suggested the idea, it would fall on deaf ears. He suggested I “go online.” Then, after much searching, he was able to find a paper form for me to fill in to give back to him. But the problem was that he didn’t know what to do with it. I did fill in the form and I did go online, but I have never heard back from anyone.

Today, a couple of years later, if you visit the same London airport, you will see that lines are shorter than they used to be, but the process is just the same–it has not changed. The problem was “alleviated” by adding more screening lines and more screening agents. This is a solution that many companies use to hide the problems caused by the barriers – they throw more resources at the problem without actually solving it.