Monday, 11 October 2010

Management Lessons From The Road

I recently travelled to London via Miami. I flew American to Miami and British Airways to Heathrow.

While I was waiting for the agent in Kingston to check me in, I heard him asking his colleague what happens if they are checking in a code-share passenger when the second airline involved has a more restrictive baggage allowance than American. For instance, American allows two checked bags free, but Delta only allows one, and charges $27 for the second.

Although it didn't apply to me and my one bag, it was obvious that checking me in had triggered the question. And neither my agent nor his colleague knew the answer. I talked to them about it, and neither could recall the question ever being addressed in their training.

When I arrived at Heathrow I was waiting for the driver who was supposed to pick me up. I called the car company and they put me on to him. He was in the airport and so we had to agree where to rendezvous. I was standing under a large banner hanging straight down from the ceiling identified the area as the Northern Meeting Point. "That's a great idea." I thought, as I relayed this information to the driver.

He'd never heard of the Northern Meeting Point. "Can you see the Costa Café?" he asked. I could. It was 20 yards away from me, and I made my way over there, found the driver, and off we went.

What is the point of these episodes? I think they exemplify two of the pitfalls that face those who make decisions that then have to be acted on by others.

In the first case, the code-sharing arrangement created a practical difficulty that the agents did not know how to overcome. Either the system designers failed to recognize the issues that could arise, or they failed to communicate the solutions to the customer-facing agents.

In the second case, the well-intentioned banner seemed to be largely ignored. My driver, who presumably regularly does airport pick-ups, had no idea that there was such a thing as the Northern Meeting Area. The truth is, the café was a far more obvious landmark than the banner.

With respect to the code-sharing issue, it's not just a matter of failing to provide the correct training - involving people at various levels in the design process, with their different perspectives, is just good practice. A system that taps into the wisdom of crowds (link to James Surowiecki's excellent book), has a much greater chance of being robust enough to survive contact with the real world.

And the question of whether, and how, to provide landmarks at the airport would be best addressed by incorporating input from those whom the solution is intended to benefit. Perhaps there are particular areas of the airport that do not have readily identified landmarks, and that is where some signage should be posted. Or perhaps people will inevitably find their own way, and in reality the banner is a solution in search of a problem.

It's really pretty simple: as much communication as possible, as early in the decision-making process as possible.
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