Back to Basics at the TSA — lean operational improvements

TSA lines aren’t as bad as feared, due to the implementation of new process designs and technology. It’s really just back to basics of operational management and Lean philosophy. No earth shattering innovations, just stuff they could have — and should have — done years ago.

TSA Capacity Management Leads to Long Lines

We’ve seen that the head of the VA doesn’t understand service delivery models and now we’re hearing the details that show the TSA doesn’t understand basic process analysis.  This should be a surprise to anyone with any understanding of capacity analysis – it certainly wasn’t to me – but it is astounding that we have people running these critical agencies that appear to lack such basic knowledge of their agencies’ core tasks.  TSA capacity management is just poor.

We all know that the lines at TSA for security checks have gotten long.  TSA wants to tell us that’s because of an increase in passenger traffic.  And various pandering senators – think Ed Markey – think it’s the checked baggage charges.  But now we’ve learned that checked bags have missed their flights — and in large numbers — due to screening holdups.

The Outcome of TSA Capacity Management: Long Lines

The problem is obvious and was well articulated by an American Airlines senior manager testifying before Congress.  The TSA didn’t adjust its staffing model when the protocols for screening baggage changed.


Let’s explain.  We all remember that TSA failed to detect contraband in smuggling tests in over 90% of attempts.  (With such poor efficacy, why even bother to do the screening?)  So, TSA responded by increasing the screening time to make sure bad stuff got flagged.  Any of us who travel could see that screening time was longer for each given bag. (If I wasn’t afraid of being arrested, I would take some hard measurements to quantify the times.)

Capacity is defined as items screened per hour or day, NOT the number of screening lines.  When you lengthen the time to screen a bag, you reduce capacity.


For example, if you double the time to screen, you would need to double the number of screening lines to keep things in balance.  TSA didn’t do that.  In fact, it appears the number of screening lines decreased.

What did they think would happen?  And their solution?  Tell people to show up earlier.  It’s your fault, passengers, for missing your flights!

TSA Recommendations Make Long Lines Even Longer

But as I have argued, having demand (people) arrive earlier does NOT address a demand/capacity imbalance! Here’s what it does do: It makes lines get even longer.  Why?

The recommendation creates a mob mentality.  Since other passengers are going to show up earlier, then I need to show even earlier just to be sure I get through.

The result?

  1. Wicked long lines waiting for security screening, which would be a very tempting soft target for terrorists.
  2. More crowded gate areas with all these people who have arrived wicked early.

As for that new screening system being tried out in Atlanta, is it really attacking the bottleneck, which is the screening time?  I’m dubious it’s all that’s being touted.  It may be an improvement, but my guess is that its impact will be marginal.

As for Senator Markey, please stop pandering.  If you shift more bags to being checked, you’re NOT attacking the bottleneck; we’ll just have more checked bags miss flights.  I know you’re a lawyer, but how about taking an operations management course at one of the nearby Boston business schools.

VA Wait Times are an Important Service Measurement

The head of the US Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, demonstrated a phenomenal lack of understanding of the nature of a service product and measurements relevant to those service products when he said that VA wait times was not an important measure.

VA Wait Times in McDonald’s View of Service Measurement

“The days to an appointment [wait time] is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veteran’s satisfaction… When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?… And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure,” as reported by the Christian Science Monitor at one of its events on May 23, 2016.

Really?  He thinks Disney doesn’t measure wait times?  Of course it does!  Why?  Because wait time is part of the customer experience, it’s part of the product-service bundle they sell to their customers.

McDonald’s bona fides for the VA job was his military background and that he was CEO of Proctor & Gamble.  How can Mr. McDonald run a service operation when he lacks such basic understanding of services?  There are no wait times in the production of Tide.

Let’s put the issue into a context that Mr. McDonald would understand.  Let’s say customers love the cleaning power of Tide, but the box they hate — no carrying handle or it was flimsy and would break into smithereens if it were dropped.  Would Mr. McDonald say, “Yea, but we should focus on the cleaning power of the detergent”?  Of course not.  Look at the whole package, which customers do.

Service Quality Dimensions

A well-accepted academic model of service quality posits that there are five dimensions to service quality:

  • Responsiveness — prompt delivery of service
  • Reliability — delivering service with good outcomes
  • Assurance — having confidence in the service provider
  • Empathy — showing concern for the customer
  • Tangibles — leaving the customer with more knowledge of the situation

People evaluate their overall experience based on all five of these factors.  The core service could be reliable and of high quality. But if you have to wait a long time for it, or you are treated badly, or you lack confidence in the abilities of the service provider, your opinion of the service will be impaired.

Interestingly, Mr. McDonald’s comments about the lack of importance of responsiveness demonstrates a lack of empathy and could probably reduce the assurance veterans will feel about their VA health services.

Professor David Maister has a highly cited Harvard Business Review article on the “Psychology of Waiting Lines.” He discusses in his book ways that the perception of wait times can be managed, but the actually wait times still need to be managed.  Just ask the TSA.

Yes, Mr. McDonald, Disney does measure and manage wait times and wait perception.  And they’re only delivering entertainment.  In your service world of health care delivery, treating wait times that can affect clinical outcomes as unimportant is truly mind boggling.

TSA Blames Passengers for Missed Flights

TSA (US airport security screeners) frequently tell us during busy times to arrive at the airport extra early. Early arrival does NOT increase capacity. If everyone arrives 2 hours early, then you are no more likely to make your plane than if everyone arrives 1 hour early. Arriving early just creates more congestion, but now TSA can turn the blame to you for missing your flight. Airport capacity management is the issue!! If only journalists would ask the right questions…