Were my travel problems a biproduct of the “benefits” of Lean?

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On my way home from our company's year-end party, I came across what could be best described as a system failure we all dread: missing luggage upon arrival.

I had an idea this might happen; while boarding, a flight attendant informed my wife and I that our bags had to be moved around for weight calibration. I started to worry since my truck keys were in my checked-in luggage. I asked the stewardess if the bag handlers were only moving the luggage around, or if some would be taken off the airplane. She reassured me with great confidence that they were only moving them around.

When I arrived at Toronto airport, the baggage collection area looked like a zoo. There were suitcases—the wrong suitcases—everywhere. 

The telltale signs of a systemic breakdown. c/o Peter Mol

Something had clearly gone wrong. After waiting by the luggage belt for about 30 minutes, I gave up and decided to go stand in the very long line that had formed in front of the baggage collection booth.

I heard many different excuses being told to the fellow victims of this unacceptable mess-up. Apparently the weather in the far east of Canada, combined with a small fire at the Toronto airport as a result of a plane bumping into a WestJet plane, somehow disturbed all flights, and even impacted the shipment of suitcases from out west, as well as out east.

To their credit, WestJet was accommodating admidst the chaos, providing a free taxi ride home for my wife, and paying for my stay at a nearby hotel so I could collect my bag (and truck) the next morning. They did mention that this was an exception. What baffled me was that after a substantial amount of time, they still had no idea where my suitcase was or when it would show up. Communication with the airport I had arrived from was ‘impossible’ they claimed, other than to send them a “system message,” which was finally answered a full 5 hours later—after the next plane on my route had already left.

Historically, WestJet is significantly more reliable than most carriers, but the airline was not delivering on this expectation at all. 

I looked for an answer to why this might have happened. Then fear struck me: had Lean finally made its way into their operations?

I Googled it, and found confirmation that the “benefits” of Lean (Kaizen) had begun to be "realized" by WestJet. In fact, their Kaizen team was scheduled to give a “trophy of excellence” presentation this upcoming June.

When is Lean too Lean?

Now, to be fair, Lean can be an effective process optimization tool, and can benefit companies should they choose to concentrate Lean methods exclusively on the processes limiting their system. However, when a process starts to dictate the system, or worse becomes the system, it can turn one local process disturbance into a global system disturbance (chaos). A system always requires protective capacity in order to protect its total reliability. This protective capacity should not be interpreted as "waste," yet it often is when Lean goes too far.

“A statistician, who could not swim, waded across a river which had an average depth of 4 feet, he drowned.” – G. Bomans.

Peter Mol

Peter has extensive experience working with mid- and c-level management teams, helping them to increase their throughput and level of performance. He has consulted with plants in a variety of manufacturing industries, including automotive, fabrication, food, plastics, stamping, aluminum and steel.

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