Thursday, August 10, 2006

Airport Double Inspection Reflex Action?

"Rational behavior requires theory. Reactive behavior requires only reflex action."-W. Edwards Deming

Dr. Deming, the leadership guru, taught leaders a body of theory that, if applied, could help their organizations be successful. Systems theory is one of the four components of his System of Profound Knowledge. Inspection as the main method of ensuring quality is flawed in many ways. First it does not catch all problems. No matter how good the inspection regimen, poor products or services get through. Second, it does not remove the causes of poor quality.

However inspection may be necessary if the cost of one bad event is great. The cost of a terrorist attack certainly could qualify for inspection, however leadership should understand it does not ensure quality. Dr. Deming had this to say about inspection in his last book The New Economics: For Industry, Government, and Education, “Dependence on inspection is hazardous and costly”. Our nation’s airline system just instituted double inspection for air passenger screening.

Beginning Friday, airline passengers will go through double screening to make sure they're not carrying liquids onto planes, the head of the airline industry's largest trade group said.

Passengers and their carry-on luggage will be checked not only at the main security checkpoint, but also a second time at the boarding gate. The stepped-up screening in response to a new terrorist threat began Thursday at 25 airports where planes leave for Britain.

"It's going to spread across the whole system tomorrow," James May, president of the Air Transport Association, said Thursday.

When I heard our federal government would be ensuring airline safety via this method I wondered, who is running the ship? As Dr. Deming said “we are being ruined by best efforts”. What impact will this “good idea” have on performance and costs?

The good Dr. passed away over 10 years ago. I wonder what the guru would’ve thought of the following statement.

But Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said it makes sense to insert "uncertainty and randomness into the system so we can't let the adversary game the system."

My guess is Dr. Deming would wonder if the system to confuse terrorists might also confuse employees. He likely would advise eliminating the problem further upstream than the gate of an airplane. What systems exist to identify terrorists before they arrive at an airport?

Another area of Profound Knowledge is variation, of which there are two types. Different management strategies are required depending on the type of variation present. He said “Confusing common causes with special causes will only make things worse.”

When special causes exist the best strategy is to act directly on the special cause. The theory of variation can be used when data is unavailable. “Terrorists attacking the air transit system” is not a regular occurrence, nor are there very many of them given the large number of people who travel every day.

Changing the system for a special cause is the wrong strategy and is very costly. Post 9-11 the Bush administration changed the system instituting mass security screening of all passengers. While this may be necessary to prevent the high cost outcome, it does not remove the special causes. They still exist. A different strategy is needed, one that deals directly with the special cause.

The Bush administration will spend more money for less effective airline safety performance. At least that’s the prediction from here. Isn’t this how Bin Laden sank Russia, by making the cost of war so great? As the U.S. throws money hand over fist at war and security, our leaders actually are making us less safe. Somehow my gut already knew that.

As Dr. Deming said “There is a penalty for ignorance. We are paying through the nose.” The last two areas of Profound Knowledge are Psychology and Knowledge. There is also the interaction of the 4 areas to consider. President Bush as “Leader of the Free World”wanting to win the “hearts and minds” of people worldwide, might want to bone up on this important body of leadership theory.

The good news is the Bush administration can attend a Deming Institute seminar to learn about faulty management practices in October. The program is even being held in Washington, DC so they don’t have far to go!

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