Queuing Kaizen at Southwest Airlines

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

I can count the times I’ve flow on Southwest airlines, which is to say not often. Their no-frills approach and unique profitability as an airlines has earned them praise and the designation as “lean” by some. My impression of Southwest Airlines was that their boarding process with the unassigned seating was a rush by all to avoid getting the middle seat, not particularly better than any other airline. I saw evidence of kaizen on today’s flight which changed my impression.

While walking around terminal B in Baltimore International Airport I noticed a row of stainless steel columns at each gate. I figured out that these are sequencing instructions for the queuing of passengers. My hint came from the boarding pass.

Boarding passes always seemed like a silly waste of paper, ink and effort in this day and age of electronic confirmation of just about every commercial transaction is possible. I didn’t recognize it for what it was until seeing the steel columns. Checking my ticket, sure enough, it was marked “Position 48” and boarding group B. I was authorized to queue next to the plinth labeled “46-50”. At boarding time it was calm and there was no rush to get in line or as fast as possible. I wasn’t going to get a better or worse boarding order than B 48.
The boarding pass was in fact a kanban. A typical paper boarding pass is no more a kanban than a printed work order authorizing the movement of a batch of parts out to a work center: The Southwest Airlines, like the kanbna card, allow for the movement of goods and services based on a pull only when the downstream process is ready. In this case the downstream process is the boarding of passengers onto the airplane.

The boarding pass acts as a kanban limited both how many people can queue as well as who can queue. The boarding process was smooth. While most airlines will scan your boarding pass and give it back to the passenger to keep or throw away, Southwest takes it from you after scanning so it can be recycled. No seat assignment, no need for a boarding card, and the luck of my draw was a middle seat.

Another Southwest Airlines kaizen was the charging station. In many airports travelers can be frequently seen “in the hunt” for access to one of the few electrical outlets. Whether to charge laptops, mobile phones or iPods, the power outlet is not a widely distributed feature of most airports which were designed before the era of proliferating portable personal electronics. This terminal was full of them. Many of the seats had small stands between them, and visible along the walkways there were even these standing workstations which would be at home in any lean office.
For people who may say that lean makes work more repetitive, less interesting or even stifling due to standardization I would say compared to what? Repeatability, creating interest for the customer and creativity in the right places are the result of lean done properly, as the Southwest Airlines experience demonstrates. What does it take to go from a dry, metrics-driven lean deployment to one that excites and inspires people to do our best each day? Keep your customer in mind, design the customer experience to flow smoothly and just like Southwest Airlines logo, put your heart into it.

  1. Andy Wagner

    July 30, 2009 - 10:45 am

    Back in the day, before TSA, Southwest boarding cards were plastic and reusable with each flight. They had no names on them, which meant they couldn’t be used in the new security environment.

  2. Ashish kaul

    July 31, 2009 - 10:14 pm

    I have read about the maverick approach of Southwest in a book called “Maverics at Work”. Southwest is living upto that reputation. When everybody is talking about “best in class”, Southwest has already introduced “Next in Class”.

  3. Tracey

    August 27, 2014 - 9:00 am

    I use SWA whenever possible. I like there simple efficient approach to air travel. We can do with all the bells and whisles. Its about getting to your destination safe and on time. I applaud SWA and proud to say they are my favorite airline!
    Yes IFLYSWA!!

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