Leaving BA

As a result of the merger of British Airways with Iberia and the formation of the International Airlines Group (IAG), I have decided there is not a suitable role for me within the new BA Operating Company.

I have therefore chosen to leave to pursue other opportunities outside BA.  I will, however, continue as the BA nominated director on the board of SITA, which I currently chair.

Announcing my departure, Keith Williams, BA’s CEO designate said: “Paul has been CIO of British Airways for just over 10 years (and Head of the wider BA Services for the last two years). We would like to thank him for his significant contribution to our business – notably the development of BA.com – in some of the most challenging and exciting trading periods in the company’s history.”

I am very proud of what we at BA have achieved in the last 10 years.  BA.com is indeed the jewel in our crown, and is now fundamental to how the airline sells tickets and holidays, and to BA’s customer service.

I am equally proud of the  24×7 IT operational excellence which is the foundation of everything the airline does.

Technology has helped transform business processes across the airline and “LEAN” techniques have empowered teams in many departments. My principle has always been that there are no IT projects, only business projects.

Everything I have achieved over the last 10 years as CIO and latterly Head of Services has been the direct result of the skills, professionalism and commitment of BA people.

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?

We all know the answer but few can execute

I was at a presentation last week on a successful IT project, or rather a successful project with IT at its heart.   Someone said all you have to do to deliver success is, “to link people and their processes to the technology”.  

Well, that says it all really and it’s tempting to just stop there. 

We all know that you can test IT systems and you should be able to make them work.  After all, they do what you tell them to do, don’t they, being simply ones and zer0s?   When things go wrong, it’s almost always because the IT does not fit the processes and/or the people are not ready or bought into using the new system.

I have had my share of such painful experiences – and we all try and learn from our mistakes. 

But, if you think about it, the answer is to form multi-disciplinary teams composed of experts in IT, experts in process, experts in how people change and – of course – experts in joining it all up. 

So why, if we all know this is the answer, does this not happen?  

I suggest there are two reasons, fundamentally.

First, companies like to keep IT in its box and, often, technology people like to live in their IT box too.   These days, every process in almost every business is enabled or driven by technology, so there is no excuse for separating process and IT.  

It sounds easy put like that, but no two business – or their processes – are the same.   Some processes need to be changed to fit the technology.  Others are so important or mission-critical that the IT has to change.   The challenge and the skill comes in judging what to change and when to change, so as to seamlessly join IT and process in harmony.

And this is easy when you compare it with the people issues!  Businesses are not just about investment and returns – they are about people’s interactions as customers and as colleagues.   Indeed, there are now some systems that just interact with other systems. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s still us who have to use them – so ease of use matters, training matters, availability matters and design matters.   

Indeed, if there is one thing I have learnt about introducing new IT, it is to work out how much training is needed, double it and then double it again.

So why do we sometimes still keep the IT people in one place, the process experts in another and the human factors folks somewhere else?   Well, that’s how organisations like to do it and our role is to challenge that.

Second – you can’t outsource accountability for joined up change.   Yes, of course, you can hire in the best technicians or analysts, web designers, you name it.   But when we talk about the intersection of IT, process and people, we are talking about the fundamentals of what makes a business function.  Yes, of course, take good advice and use the best people you can hire, but if there is a heart and soul to an organisation, this is where it resides.

You have to work out what you want to do and how you are going to get people to do it.

As we all know, the failure rates of IT projects that are reported are terrifying.  The amount of money wasted is large and the careers ruined many.   And yet we know the answer lies in joining things up effectively across boundaries and org-charts.

So – to end on a note of hope – the recent trends in the UK to use LEAN and AGILE techniques do exactly this.   They value people changing as the key to effective business change, and they hang process change – and then IT – off that. 

They involve people in their own processes and ask them what they think needs improving.  They put business and IT experts together in the same place and get them jointly to solve problems.   This has got to be a better way…

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