LEAN as the key enabler of change at British Airways

Recently I was asked to close the Process Excellence Summit held at Stamford Bridge – the home, of course, of Chelsea Football Club. Apart from the opportunity to point out that Norwich City has been promoted to the Championship (ie the former 2nd Division), the Summit was a great chance to talk about BA’s journey towards LEAN as the enabler of process change.

One of the many good things about being CIO and Head of BA Services at British Airways is that you don’t need to describe what we do. We are constantly in the news, most recently due to the strikes and volcanic ash! The business is of its nature complex, with a global network of routes, and operates in a volatile political, economic and competitive environment – recently impacted, of course, by snow and earthquakes, as well as volcanoes.

So we are accustomed to change and we need to be able to change our processes quickly and flexibly to meet ever-evolving customer and business needs. One key lesson I have learnt since I became CIO in 2001 is that technology is never enough. “There should be no IT projects – only business projects”. In other words, everything we do we must be able to connect back to our customers.

It has taken us a long time, though, to decide on LEAN as our preferred method of business change. We tried out most of the top-down ways of improving our processes from BPR, through TQM, to 6 Sigma.

So why was it LEAN that worked for us? Well, it eliminates waste, saves cost and – most critically for us – motivates and involves our colleagues. It is also, of course, very challenging! It requires top management leadership; it needs colleagues in the customer frontline and on the shop floor to be involved and genuinely bought in to LEAN; and, perhaps most challenging of all, it relies on line management empowering the frontline.

Here is a summary of how we do LEAN in BA. The key is to focus on what matters most: our customers. We try to establish a ‘single thread’ linking everything people do in the airline – whoever and wherever they are, whether in data-centres and finance shared services or the terminals and on-board the aircraft – to the customer who pays all our wages and our bills.

LEAN gives us the tools to eliminate waste and to simplify every process by creating flow. This is the key concept from LEAN for us, which is just as relevant to how we help our customers flow through Terminal 5 at Heathrow, or flying around our network; as it is to the flow of spares through our engineering supply chain or of transfer bags through the global baggage-handling systems.

The key to making process improvement stick is developing a continuous improvement culture. We always say that LEAN is 80% people and 20% process! The power of LEAN is that it is genuinely engaging when done well. The techniques we use are to give everyone some background on what LEAN is, how it works and why, preferably using real-life BA examples and game-playing. We then spend time getting the people who use a process to describe it and, most importantly, to start explaining where it is broken or does not work. Guess what – the people who use problematic processes every day are passionate about what’s wrong and most importantly what can be improved.

The key is then to get everyone to work together using commonsense LEAN techniques – the 5Ss, process maps etc – to design what will work better.

We find two things: first, that there is a lot of scepticism about this initially.

It is really important that you talk to the people who actually do the process that needs to be improved about it. If you can get over that, then we find that the other thing is that the new process sticks – precisely because it has been designed by the operators and users of the process. You use it – because it’s your process!

We have a famous example of LEAN in action from BA Interiors in South Wales. The lifejackets, which are carried on every flight have to be maintained. It took 57 days for a life-vest to move through the previous process – with an average touch time of 90 mins. There were multiple operations, including a manual inflation of the life-vest! Not much flow there.

One of our colleagues – a long-serving member of the South Wales Engineering Team – was so frustrated with this that he designed a new process, complete with a newly designed turn-table that allowed him to work on the life-vests. As a result, the turn-time has come down to 4 days, with each vest taking 58 mins to service. Real flow, real simplification and – most important of all – real ownership of the work.

What has impressed us most is the way that LEAN has moved out from the industrial areas you might expect it to work in, like Engineering and Aircraft Interiors, to the IT people, and airports operations. Now, missed baggage rates have been improved – and new joiners to BA get their desktop access on the day they join.

LEAN has also moved out into customer relations areas and marketing – not the traditional areas for process improvement enthusiasm. Overseas airports have improved their check-in, we process customer letters faster and we have reduced the cycle-time for tactical marketing campaigns.

There is so much more to say about LEAN – how we have benefited from strong leadership messages from Willie, the inspirational role of our central LEAN team, and the tool-sets we use. More about those next, perhaps? I would be interested to learn about other people’s experiences of LEAN techniques. What’s worked for you and what hasn’t?

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

One Response to LEAN as the key enabler of change at British Airways

  1. Simon Johnson says:

    We have applied Lean techniques to our own operations in a companywide programme which we started about 18 months ago.

    Our experience is that the measures (KPIs) are key – they must be fair and accurate; without this nobody can have confidence in changes having the right sort of impact, or that everybody is pulling together to achieve the same things. The benefits from elimination of waste, increased flexibility and process standardisation to improve quality and efficiency must be consistently demonstrated to maintain momentum. It is the critical part of the continuous improvement cycle: we say that a Lean transformation of an area is only the kick start to continuous improvement, not the finished design.

    The KPI cascade is also the key to involving colleagues and maintaining their motivation and mindset. They provide feedback on how well each individual is doing, for personal performance and development. This needs to be reinforced with recognition that is seen by all to be objective for Lean to be sustainable. We also endeavour to recognise the most improved, not just the best, and have found it is equally important to enforce the consequences of poor performance.

    Most of all, KPIs clearly define what is of value to the customer and thereby focus the development of the service towards delivering more value.

    In Application Development it is particularly challenging to design standard tasks and standard metrics for those tasks that will equate performance across individuals and groups of people that may be doing technically dissimilar tasks so that contribution can be measured fairly. We have developed a work unit catalogue to apply consistent measures across the whole company for the technology platforms that we use.

    We also believe that Lean is about the way we manage as well as the way we work. Managers who have been successful through command and control find it difficult to empower and let go; Lean is learning to manage the release of potential and the change process, rather than controlling the tasks. Group huddles develop self management and problem solving within the teams.

    But we have found that responses are very good, perhaps because IT attracts people who are naturally empowered through their technical skill and knowledge. One disadvantage of this is that where knowledge is important for your personal success and standing, getting people to share knowledge for the benefit of all can be challenging. Team work and team performance therefore needs to be developed as well as ensuring that a person’s contribution to shared knowledge and skill is properly recognised in addition to personal performance.

    A significant change in our experience is that IT staff become more motivated by higher levels of customer satisfaction – instead of say, resolving tickets with the most interesting technical difficulties, there is a definite mindset change that the job is customer service and resolving the ticket is just the vehicle for delivering it.

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