Lean for Airports (Dare to Dream…)

The new Nagoya International Airport was famously built under budget and faster than scheduled thanks to help in Lean thinking from Toyota advisors. In another example of public-private partnership, a July 17, 2007 Computerworld UK article reports that Lean methods drive Heathrow Terminal 5 development.
British Airways (BA) plays the role of advising the British Airports Authority (BAA). There is more of an IT slant to the article than mention of TPS, but it is interesting nonetheless:
“At BA we have tried to think ‘What’s this building for? What are we trying to do?’ We have thought about processes and how they affect people and then designed the use of IT around that,” said Coby.
He said BA was using the so-called lean methodologies – dubbed ‘Lean: Fit for Five’ internally – principally to improve process efficiency across its IT projects.

BA is helping BAA recognize that the airport is similar in many ways to a factory, and that process improvement can yield efficiencies.
“Lean is about changing work culture and continuous improvement,” said Coby. “It is not a quick fix or one-off investment.”

These are the right words, even if they are surrounded by a lot of talk of IT, and complex automation systems:

The main T5 terminal will also contain 175 lifts, 131 escalators and 18km of conveyor belts for baggage handling.

I can’t help be skeptical of anything containing 18km of conveyor being Lean. If the BA and BAA folks spent some time standing in a giant circle they may notice a lot of people waiting and sitting around, a lot of the time. No amount of conveyor will help this problem. What is needed is a rethinking of the whole process. The Lean tools of 3P for Production Preparation Process can help do this.
A quick “7 ways” exercise for baggage handling:
1. Why not deliver baggage to passengers via tuggers running milk runs?
2. Why not deliver bags directly to their final destination rather than making passengers wait, for a nominal additional fee?
3. Why not synchronize the loading / unloading of the baggage with the loading / unloading of passengers and let passengers claim them just in time as they exit the plane?
4. Why not deliver the bags to a staging area, with assigned seats for the bags?
5. Why not have many small “conveyor cells” that flow more rapidly, sorted by size of item or section of the airplane, rather than a giant conveyor?
6. Why not let people who want to pay to have their bags delivered through an “express lane” process?
7. Why not require standardized sizes and shapes of baggage, and load / unload the entire airplane in one go, as a container or cartridge, and deliver this cartridge in one piece to be unloaded one at a time?
Whether investing in IT systems, buildings, or conveyor, Lean thinking says you must first thoroughly understand the process and simplify it as much as possible. For equipment or information systems vendors, often life (or the project timeline) is too short to do this. Hopefully the BA and BAA team take the long view and go the Lean way.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Poppendieck

    July 18, 2007 - 8:49 am

    When flying to Switzerland, you can have your bags delivered to almost any hotel in the coutry for about $30. For example, we flew from Minneapolis to Zurich and took the train to St. Moritz. Our bags arrived at the hotel two hours after we did.