Lean, Organisational culture, Service Improvement

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Lean?

I don’t like flying much at all. Not for climate reasons unfortunately, but for defying gravity reasons. I became ok at it when I worked on a project in Switzerland for a couple of years and that was great, finally I was free. But now I’ve got a daughter, I don’t tend to travel as much, plus suddenly flying has a whole new ‘I can’t die and leave my baby’ quality about it. So, the tense feeling has returned, clouding every holiday, beginning and end. 

This summer we went away to Portugal, and the dates that we had in mind meant that a certain budget airline was the most viable option. Having once had a hideous experience coming back from Florence, I was loathed to fly with them ever again, but in the spirit of continuous improvement, thought I’d give them another go.   

So, after wrestling with holiday decisions and plumping for what I hoped would be a nice time, I bought the hotel and flights, leaving more tedious purchasing activities as hotel transfers, baggage allowance and airport parking to a later date (groan).

I was triggered into tedious task action upon hearing my mother-in-law’s recent painful encounter with said airline. She was stung at the airport because she hadn’t realized that their now standard cabin baggage allowance (without purchasing ‘extras’) is that most common of bag size, the 25 x 20 x 40 cm classic. I don’t know about you but I have a wardrobe teaming with these items.

I jest. Who owns this monstrosity? 

I braced myself as I logged onto the website, to find that to revel in the luxury that is, “bringing clothes with you when you are away from your house for a prolonged period of time”, I needed to pay £50 per bag, each way (admittedly I appreciate that given flying’s hideous toll on the planet, that’s probably not enough of a charge). Regardless, there was absolutely no way that having already forked out for a holiday, I was about to pay £200 to bring 2 bags with me, so I vowed to ‘travel light’ and get the whole family’s clothes into one suitcase. Now £100 lighter, a new sense of loathing settled in my soul. 

I was reminded of my Florence flight all those years ago…. after we FINALLY boarded the staff proclaimed “You’d be stranded if we didn’t save you, and we’re having to do this for free”.  (This ACTUALLY HAPPENED).  I thought that this was an abhorrent statement at the time, but writing it down, I’m actually furious at myself for ever giving them another go. Their staff were literally shouting at us that they were having to take us home without getting paid and still I sat down to travel with them again, putting my life in their hands at 35,000 feet.  

At the time, and I notice this practice didn’t happen on my recent trip, they heralded every safe landing with a triumphant trumpet fanfare “another flight, landed on time! 95% – best of all the airlines etc. etc.” knowing the perverse nature of targets however, this means that everyone is focused to care only about ensuring success of the 95%.  The minute anything strays into 5% territory, you are no longer worthy of their time, already disregarded on the trash heap of ‘poor performance’.

Another layer of soul pain occurred when it became clear that, even though they HAD to put a parent and their child in seats next to each other (seems that it would be a tad too uncharitable of the business model to have 4 year olds sitting next to randoms…. one day, one day), there’s some kind of algorithm in place to ensure that families WILL NOT sit together UNLESS you PAY to sit together.  See you at the airport when we get there Husband! (He is delighted). Every customer interaction just fills you with joy. 

So here we are in 2019 and about to fly with them again. Let’s face it, I ACED packing light and had also managed to locate 3 x 25 x 20 x 40 cm bags. Yet still, as we approached the checking in machines (of course there has been massive investment in automation) a sense of nervousness and unrest slowly crept up from my toes, were we going to make it without a bumper fine? Would they notice that one of the hideous bags was 2 cm too long in one of its dimensions? The suspense was palpable. 

The queue….. moved relatively quickly, the machines …… were clinical in their efficiency.. we passed the one bag weight test – YES …. stickers printed, bag dropped off…. Hmm….. what was this feeling though… hmm… unsettling…. It was all going rather too well. 

And so to boarding the plane, we hadn’t paid for ‘speedy boarding’ and yet this didn’t seem to matter as things seemed to move along swimmingly and before I knew it, we were sat in our seats. 

Juggling a 4 year old on a flight, you need to entertain and as I was struggling with handfuls of toys and colouring pens in my near bursting 25 x 20 x 40 cm bags, I longed for a pocket to stash some things. But no, there were no seat pockets to be found.  Lectures of old instantly began to haunt me where I had marveled at the budget hotel rooms which specialized in no door wardrobes which were a) easy to clean facilitating quick room turnarounds and b) meant that it was difficult to leave things behind.  

Yes, hard to leave things behind on this flight too when there isn’t anywhere to put anything. No sickbags that need to be replaced, no rubbish that can be secretly stashed therefore requiring cleaning. ‘Let’s get this flight turned around ASAP’. There’s that feeling again … unsettling and clinical efficiency.  

Usually, the emergency landing card can be found within the wonderful storage pocket, but no, why do that when a) there is no pocket to put it in and b) people could fold/draw on/ruin the card, again needing to be replaced. Why! Simply stick the warning on the back of the seat! Perfect! There when you need it as you plummet to your doom! 

That’s when I felt it…  that hmm .. “Leanness can definitely go too far” feeling. Oh how I longed for a pocket to enable me to hide the “BRACE! BRACE!” image from directly in front of my eyes. For the entire duration of the flight.  A flight where I hoped that the staff were being paid.

Of course, I can get myself and the lean community out of this unsettling feeling by proclaiming that “Customer delight is key! Nothing about that service sparked joy, so it’s not real lean” and I stand by that, but I think it would be wrong of us to not be wary of how the messages can be adopted when in the wrong hands. When all is said and done, it really did tick several lean boxes. 

The holiday was fantastic, nobody died, but there were so many ways that the ‘getting there and getting home’ part could have been improved. I’m going to go to a travel agent next year, someone who presents everything to me as a one price package, shielding me from the ‘do we really all need to sit together?’ financial decisions. I want to be able to take my shampoo with me and more than 2 pairs of shoes. I want to not look at a variety of plane crash scenarios for the entirety of the flight and I will be true to my beliefs and never fly that airline ever again. 

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