The Continuous Improvement Blog

Gemba stories: a tale of airport inefficiencies

Written by Colin McArdle on 06 Feb 2018


The airport experience. When we're going on holiday it's great; all that excitement and anticipation at the prospect of a week away in the sun or on the slopes. It's enough to mask the minor frustrations of queuing for check-in, for baggage checks, and the long wait to board once you get to the gate.

We accept all of this because at the other end is a big sign saying 'freedom!'. Time free from work, washing, cleaning, taking the bins out... and time free to spend with our loved ones.

The return journey, on the other hand, is never quite so pleasant. It's no surprise really. Though you may feel refreshed and well-rested after some time away, the return journey signals 'back to the real world'. And all that washing...

But it's almost like the airports are taking our good moods for granted as we return from our travels with fresh smiles and suntans.

Why else would they make simple processes so complicated? 

The 'Gemba' observation

Observing the processes that make up the traveller's airport experience during my last business trip. My return trip from Turin to Manchester Airport via Brussels revealed some obvious areas for improvement. Ones that made me and fellow travellers question more than once, why does this happen?

Having landed at Manchester and parked the plane the air steward makes an announcement, “Sorry about the delay but we are waiting for the steps to arrive before we can open the doors”. Five minutes later the steps appear, and we disembark. Then we spent 10 minutes getting off the plane piling onto the bus to take us to the terminal. Squeezed in, just like a London underground train at rush hour, the bus makes its way swaying round corners across to the terminal – oh what a pleasant experience! Upon arrival, the bus doors open, and we start to pile out, only to be met with a cry from the driver of "Stay on the bus! The terminal doors aren't open yet, we’ve been told to wait for five minutes.”

So instead we all pile back onto the bus with moans and groans; passenger patience being tested to the limit. Five minutes later after the joy of being packed into the bus again, the terminal doors open and finally, we're allowed off. 

Now, this flight lands every week, at about the same time, in the same place, and the bus always transports passengers from the plane to the terminal. So why aren't these predictable processes, people and equipment aligned for a more smooth transition and pleasant passenger journey? What is the cost of resources (staff, equipment, terminal charges etc.) and the subsequent lost flight time of holding the aircraft parked waiting five minutes for steps so that the plane can be cleared of passengers and cleaned for the next flight?   

Then it was on to passport control. There was one lane open with options for e-passports and normal passports. But there were only two officers checking passports, and the queue was enormous. I noticed another lane open for 'identify cards only' with a member of security stood guarding the entrance. Here's where the first flag was raised - who carries identify cards and what proportion of the passengers on my flight went into this lane? Well, zero. I noticed that in this lane there were four passport officers sat at the desks doing nothing, with nobody in the queue. 

So why were only two of the six available passport control officers being utilised? If the process was redesigned to channel passengers to the additional four officers then passenger throughput would be increased by 300% and people would have been able to get through much quicker, and passport officer productivity would go up.

Improving the customer experience with Lean

These delays of getting off the plane, getting into the terminal and of getting through passport control were unnecessary. Applying Lean tools like Gemba, as well as Value Stream Mapping (VSM) and the 5Rs (Remove, Reduce, Reorder, Replace, Re-deploy) allows for waste like this to be identified, measured and removed or reduced. The result? A more positive customer experience, and ultimately a more efficient and profitable operating model.

Once again, simply observing the place of work, the 'Gemba' can reveal significant opportunities for process improvement.

Think about the processes in your own operations. What waste exists? Go look see. Go to Gemba. You may be surprised at what you find.


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Topics: lean, gemba stories, gemba

Colin McArdle

Written by Colin McArdle

Colin McArdle, the Founder and Managing Director of Kaizen Kulture is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has over 30 years industry experience. Kaizen Kulture's mission is to be true to the ethos of continuous improvement.