Planes, Processes and Innovation

You board the jet and people eventually take their seats. I suppose I should have sussed that there were going to be problems when they didn’t board by row numbers or groups. A free for all at the Gate.

The Captain starts spouting something from the overhead speaker about 10 mins after the plane was due to leave. Something about a reported leak that had been checked already and fixed. “Phew”. But he continues … we now needed to get the paperwork sorted out. Oh oh! Everyone groans and rolls their eyeballs. It is going to take a little time. That’s OK you think … how long can paperwork take when you have 400 or so customers sitting on the tarmac in a very costly asset. 15 minutes later, he is on again. It seems that the only one who can sign the necessary paperwork is on the other side of the airport. It is going to take him 20 mins at least to get here. More groans. And you think – marvelous organization. After 50 mins, more we are told that the lawyers are now happy; we have the bit of paper that says something important to someone who will undoubtedly never look at it. But … you knew there was going to be another but, the plane cannot move now as there is nobody to unhook the jet-way. 20 minutes later, we are now unhooked but there are planes parked in the taxiway behind the gate (no doubt waiting to get in).

Finally, for want of a signature on a piece of paper (mandated by regulations) we are underway … a mere 110 minutes late. And the chances of that piece of paper ever being looked at again … not high.

Of course it is not only British Airways who have their process coordination problems (although waiting an extra hour and a half for baggage after a 2 hour delay does sort of rub salt into the wound … as this was the 4th time since June that I had experienced a 2 hour delay I feel somewhat justified in naming them).

The point is that it is when things go wrong that organizations really differentiate themselves. And nowhere is this more visible than the airline business. Most regular travelers could tell similar stories of ineptitude and out of date procedures. But this is also a story about innovation.

Let’s change anecdotes. As any regular traveler will tell you, it is just a question of time till you leave some of your possessions on the plane. I had managed to avoid this affliction until earlier this year when, after a longhaul flight from London to Texas, I transferred to an internal flight. I got up at the end of it, totally discombobulated, and left my MP3 player, 2 sets of prescription glasses and the book I had been reading in the seat. Did I see any of the items again – not a chance.

Several hundred dollars later, I repeated the exact experience on a flight from San Jose to Santa Ana. Went in to the Lost & Found the next morning after several discussions with a telephone answering machine, the AA assistant there said something like “you realize we outsource our cleaning here,” as though that was an adequate excuse for the fact that they didn’t have anything written on any of the bits of paper in the office. But when I got back to the house, there was a message on the machine … “Mr Miers, did you loose something on your way back from SJC last night, if so, you better call and tell me.” Yippee – they found it.

When I went back the following morning, I found myself talking with the supervisor. His process innovation had been to apply a secret shopper mentality – to plant items in the planes that went for cleaning just to test the honesty and reliability of the cleaning company. As a result, all found items are handed in. As a result, a completely transformed customer experience. Like chalk and cheese. And when you think about it, the potential benefits of a BPM system to handle this sort of innovation are tremendous. Instead of having to go to the airport to physically get hold of someone it could be integrated into the AA portal. The gate staff could be notified, the cleaners informed of an item to look for, the supervisor gets to monitor whats going on … and so can the customer. Instead of a care-less attitude, it becomes a mechanism for building a relationship with the customer.

It is these sorts of opportunities to enhance the customer experience that really differentiates the firm – instead of having people like me whine on about poor service, they move me into the net-recommender category with something that is really very easy to automate.

I suppose the real question was whether AA has the management practices to first of all want to detect such innovations, and then distribute them to its other offices (they certainly could do with them in Austin). Whether or not such innovations make it all the way to full process support is not the point here – it is all about the management, and their attitude to process. 

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