By Les McKeown, CEO of Predictable Success
It’s no secret that travel this summer is proving even more stressful than usual, thanks to absurdly long lines at TSA-staffed security checkpoints. Unless you’ve been hibernating, you can’t have missed the tales of missed flights, flyer outrage and airline frustration.
If you have more than a passing interest in the matter, you may have gone a little deeper and read about some of the proposed solutions: process improvement, outsourcing, and leadership change being the main candidates.
So what happens next?
The short answer is, all of the above. Unfortunately for the despairing traveler, after brief reductions in wait times, everything will return to the status quo. In brief, all of the proposed ‘solutions’ will be tried in some form, and none will work in the medium to long term.
To understand why this is, it’s important to realize that the TSA isn’t an ‘organic entity’ – it isn’t like, say, you favorite neighborhood locksmith, or Starbucks, or even GM. To be specific, the TSA wasn’t founded by someone with a vision and drive – it was specifically created as part of the Department of Transportation (in response to the terror attacks on 9/11) and emerged as a fully-formed bureaucracy.
In organizational terms, the TSA (like most government agencies) operates in The Big Rut – a place where systems rule, innovation is sinful and customers are a giant pain in the you-know-what. More importantly, organizations in The Big Rut (a) typically employ people who actively like and encourage a culture of low-productivity sullenness and (b) are run by Processors, managers whose key focus is on systems and processes, not customer-focused outputs.
What does this mean for the proposed initiatives that will allegedly transform the agency? Let’s take a closer look:
1. Process Improvement.
Improve what happens in and around those lines and wait times will go down, is how the theory goes – have trays on a revolving belt, say, or a separate area to remove shoes.
The reality, as anyone who travels through major European airports (like London’s Heathrow, where most of those improvements have been in place for years) will tell you, is that after a short period of improvement, the ‘enhanced’ processes simply become another ‘barking point’: “Please wait and stack your own tray on the belt.” “Move over here to take off your shoes.” Never forget – Processors love processes and rarely, if ever, simplify them.
This ‘solution’ proposes bringing in outside organizations that are more innovative, forward-looking and customer-focused than the TSA to address wait times. This sounds great (and has produced some improvements in a few locations). The reason it won’t work in the long term is that it outsources operations, not management (constitutionally, the TSA cannot outsource its own management). And over time, a Processor-driven management will always embroil all its operations in overblown systems and processes, whether the labor is outsourced or not.
Imagine FedEx taking over the operation of USPS deliveries – but with the drivers reporting to existing USPS management. How long do you think it would take for FedEx to exit that contract?
3. Leadership Change.
This is one solution that holds out some prospect of hope – but not in the way it’s currently being discussed. Just as with GM after the recall disaster, the leadership changes being discussed are both cosmetic and limited.
There is a way in which leadership change can make a difference in The Big Rut – but it has to (a) be wholesale – the entire top team has to go, and (b) bring in a team with all four of the leadership styles necessary to run a vibrant organization: Visionary, Operator, Processor and the Synergist (note to TSA overseers: simply grafting in a Visionary won’t do the trick. Just ask Larry Summers).
The likelihood of the TSA doing this? Zero.
Add an extra hour to your journey times, and don’t forget to trash that water bottle before you get to the security checkpoint.
Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog