SITA/Airline Business IT Summit – Closing Speech June 2011

Here is the video link to the summing-up of what was a great IT Summit in June.

I think it marked a landmark in Airline IT – but more of that later…

There were some great contributions from airline and airport CEOs and CIOs.  Here are some of statements I tried to pick up on in the Closing:

* Spend more on your IT

* Don’t talk about social networking: do it

* Do more IT for less

* Fresh thinking is needed for mobile and social networking

* The difference is that the Cloud is now easily accessible cheaply and securely

* Emphasis on customers will make the difference

* Get IT out of the ‘techy corner’ and get it listened to

* Technology without business process is asking for trouble

* Need to integrate airports with the end-to-end customer experience

* IT is the driving force for Business Model change

* Every CIO/IT Director has Mobile, Cloud, Internet of Things, CRM and Social Networking on their agenda these days

My personal conclusion was two-fold:

First, that IT matters – really matters – even more than before, because it is leveraging social and economic change much more than ever before.  The role of the CIO or IT Director is to make sense of all this change and of all these possibilities.

Secondly, that IT providers are central to airlines and airports in new ways.  Yes, of course, for Operations; yes, of course, for Selling and for Servicing; but now IT is central to the whole Customer Experience.  That is new and that is the landmark change.

What is Leadership in IT?

This is a topic I sometimes get asked about by journalists.  There are numerous articles published in magazines and online about “leadership”.  Consultants will sell you studies and there is generally supposed to be a rather large problem about it.

The IT profession worries a lot about how it is perceived by its customers, partners and suppliers: whether it has a seat at the top table, whether it is listened to and, when it is feeling collectively pessimistic, whether anyone is listening at all.

Now there is a lot you could talk about here and I will only attempt to answer the leadership question.  It’s something I have put a lot of thought into, after all it is a large and a complex topic.

Lets start at the boring end of this and define our terms, leadership in the Oxford Dictionaries Web-site is defined as:

  • “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this”

Not much use is it?  So we then get to leader where the first definition is:

  • “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”

This is not getting anywhere is it?  So then we take a look at lead and at last with the third definition (ignoring the parts about leading animals and winning a race) we find:

“#3 be in charge or command of:

  • organise and direct
  • be the principal player of (a group of musicians)
  • set (a process) in motion
  • begin a report or text with a particular item
  • in boxing make an attack
  • in card games play the first card”

So let’s see if we can work with these?  Well simply it is important to recognise that leading and leadership have many different meanings for different people, different organisations and different contexts.

There are four elements of this that resonate with me.  The first is that leadership in IT requires you to organise and direct. And I like the dictionaries juxtaposition here of ORGANISE and DIRECT.  It is a big risk that you may sometimes be tempted to do too much organising of the IT Department and forget to set strategic directions clearly; and vice versa since direction of IT without effective order and organisation will almost certainly end in tears.

Secondly setting a process in motion is of course also very familiar to anyone in modern organisations these days.  Leadership in the 21st Century is usually rarely in the military mode where you ask people who report to you to advance in a particular direction (or indeed shout CHARGE! follow me!).  Most likely in complex organisations these days IT leadership is about working with, persuading and influencing “business process owners”, in your and often in other companies or structures, to deliver together the shared objective.  Less dramatic than shouting CHARGE, it is probably harder to do and requires a completely different set of skills including, analysis, communications and political ‘know-how’.

Thirdly being the principal player of a group of musicians is a really tremendous definition, which I really like.  These days no-one in IT knows it all, understands every technology old and new, is a database expert and a networking genius, can manage waterfall and agile projects and so forth.  You rely on the talent and the experience of your immediate team and their teams.  If I have learnt one thing over my time as a CIO it is that IT is a team sport.  For it all to work it has all to work together and the analogy of an orchestra is an excellent one.  Whether the CIO is the conductor or the first violin depends on you, and I think sometimes it is smart to be part of the team and sometimes to conduct it.

Finally there is the boxing attack, and yes on a small number of issues you are going to have some fights.  Most things can be resolved by compromise but leadership does involve having some principles and lines in the sand, where an IT leader will need to fight his or her corner.  An example will be the point where if a system is not renewed the business is in danger, or you are insecure, or don’t have adequate back-up.  You cannot compromise on those issues.

I invariably disappoint the journalists with complicated answers like this on IT leadership but I really do think it just depends – depends on the culture of your organisation, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in (a Recession requires very different leadership from a Boom) and above all depends on you.

But I would suggest you think as an IT leader where you want to be on the following dimensions:

  • organise
  • direct
  • process
  • conduct
  • (and very rarely) attack

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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