Lean Thinking and Practice at the Airport


It’s the Easter weekend and after two years of lockdowns, we are all eager to get away. However, holiday makers (and business travellers) face continued travel disruptions at airports and ports. As a frequent flyer, I’ve flown through Manchester Airport three times so far this year. The first two trips (one through Terminal 1 and one through Terminal 2) were OK. The third trip through Terminal 2 was difficult. Here, I reflect how lean thinking and practice at the airport can help beleaguered, overburdened staff while at the same time easing the passenger experience.

Lean Thinking and Practice at the Airport

We have researched the airline and travel industry several times over the years. Jim Womack and Dan Jones used one of Dan’s early trips to Crete in Lean Thinking. The purpose was to “define value in terms of the whole product”. To show how value creation flows through several firms. Each one tending to define value in a different way to suit its own needs. In Lean Thinking (1996: pp19) Dan’s travel agenda involves nineteen different organisations. These include a travel company, a taxi, ground staff, security staff, customs staff, airport authorities, the airline, air traffic authorities, the bus company and the rented villa. The “box score” included:

  • Total travel time: 13 hours
  • Time actually going somewhere: 7 hours (54% of the total)
  • Queuing and waiting time: 6 hours
  • Number of lines (queues): 10
  • Times luggage was picked up and put down: 7
  • Number of inspections (all asking the same questions): 8
  • Total processing steps: 23.

Rightly, Dan and Jim point out that “the problem here is not that there are too many firms involved. Each was appropriately specialised for its current task. The problem instead is that each firm was providing a partial product. Often only by looking inward towards its own operational ‘efficiency.’ No one was looking at the whole product through the eyes of the customer. The minute the focus shifts to the whole as seen by the customer obvious questions emerge.”

Has the Airport Experience Improved?

Since Lean Thinking was published in 1996 much has changed. However, one can’t help think of Jean-Baptise Karr’s aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. This usually translates as “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. We see improvements in our ability to search, identify and purchase flights. We can now download our boarding passes allowing us to bypass baggage check in when travelling cabin luggage only. But, much of these improvements are “point efficiency” improvements. We still queue at the airport if we have to check in bags and we all queue at security.

Current Airport Issues

Over recent weeks the queues have become a regular news item. Examples include this regional Manchester Evening News article:  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/manchester-airport-mess-23590910 and this national daily paper article from The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/airport-security-queue-delay-passenger-rights-b2051124.html .

It’s also not a new problem. Before the pandemic, back in 2018, in “What’s going wrong at Manchester Airport?”  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/whats-going-wrong-manchester-airport-14956923. Charlotte Cox reported on the huge investment plans outlined as a set of countermeasures for customer dissatisfaction issues at Manchester Airport. (Or Ringway as locals still call it.) “The plan comes with the promise of faster check-in and security checks, as well as a speedier journey through immigration and baggage claim. With major changes to be noticeable as early as 2019, it’s the transformation passengers have been waiting for, as older facilities appear to creak under the strain of growing numbers.”

Will the huge investment undertaken provide a better passenger experience? Reports suggest they haven’t made a difference yet. On Tuesday 5th April Manchester Airport’s managing director quit after weeks of chaos. Thousands of passengers have missed their flights because of queues up to seven hours long. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/apr/05/manchester-airport-manager-quits-after-weeks-of-chaos Can lean thinking and practice help beleaguered, overburdened staff while at the same time easing the passenger experience?

What is the Problem to Solve?

We recommend that anyone embarking on using lean, answer fundamental questions about their situation (rather than copying solutions from elsewhere) organised around the themes of purpose, process and people:

  • Purpose: What customer problems will the organisation solve to achieve its own purpose of prospering?
  • Process: How will the organization assess each major value stream to make sure each step is valuable, capable, available, adequate, flexible, and that all the steps are linked by flow, pull, and with demand levelled within operations and across the supply chain?
  • People: How can the organization ensure that every important process has someone responsible for continually evaluating that value stream in terms of customer and business purpose and lean process? How can everyone touching the value stream be actively engaged in operating it correctly and continually improving it?

Applying Lean Thinking and Practice to Airports

In terms of operating an airport, there are clearly different levels of problem(s.) In “Lean Solutions” Jim Womack and Dan Jones explain that many consumer problems can be solved by obtaining and using one or a few items or a simple service. The examples used include the right pair of shoes at the right place at the right time. The complete basket of groceries using our work with Tesco and my own work applying lean thinking and practice to car service and repair. 

Some consumer problems are more complicated. Air travel being one. It is set in the context of several big players. These include governments that want to control their borders, aircraft manufacturers that optimise their economics in terms of the planes they make, lease and service, the airlines that fly us, the airport itself and the myriad of routes we as passengers take. However, if we think firstly from the perspective of the customer there are some simple principles of lean consumption to help when applying lean thinking and practice at the airport and some questions.

The Principles of Lean Consumption:

  • Solve my problem completely means getting from A to B safely, on time, on budget with my luggage.
  • Don’t waste my time applies to trip preparation time and total door to door travel time, not just cruising speed in the airplane.
  • Provide exactly what I want means the right combination of amenities (seating, retail activity, refreshments etc.) to accomplish my trip purpose.
  • When I want means frequent departures, ideally precisely customised to my precise time requirement. 
  • Provide it where I want means travelling from an airport near my departure point to an airport near my precise destination. 
  • Simplify my decisions means bundling all the trip arrangements – air reservation, rental car, hotel – into one simple package from one touch point.

Applying good questions, rather than ready-made solutions from elsewhere can help any management team. The discussion that comes from these questions must be turned into “gap(s) to close.” Specifically in this case, in terms of process and lead times through these main process steps.

Design Processes that Flow

Lean thinkers design processes to flow. However perfect flow is a very difficult thing to achieve in practice. Lean Thinkers have distinct ways that they look at flow. They have tuned their eyes to check:

  1. Does the information flow?
    • Does everyone know the hourly output (production) target?
    • Are we behind or ahead of plan?
    • How quickly are problems and abnormalities noticed?
    • What is the management system to respond to problems and abnormalities?

Someone at the airport knows the number of flights. It shouldn’t be a surprise when people show up to get their airplane. Online check in increases the readiness passenger information. How many bags they will have? How many they will check in, and so on?

  • Does the material flow?
    • Does the workpiece move from one value creating processing step right to the next value creating processing step without any delays, backflows, waiting or quality issues? 

There are several material flows here. Obviously, there is the flow of passengers and the flow of their bags. Just as I pointed out in “A Shot in the Arm” we as passengers (rather than patients) are the “workpiece” being worked on. We enter as an un-security checked passenger and exit to board an aircraft as a security checked person.

  • Do the operators flow?
    • Is the manual work standardised so it is repeatable and consistent within each cycle?
    • Can the person efficiently go from performing one value creating work step (work element) to the next?

The workers include those checking in passengers, those processing the security checks, those processing the luggage and so on. 

Where is the flow, where is the stagnation?

Lean thinkers have techniques that they use to communicate issues and opportunities. They can use these to apply Lean thinking and practice at the airport. Simple layouts and spaghetti charts show the flow and where stagnation occurs. https://planet-lean.com/spaghetti-chart-physical-distancing/ Value stream maps connect the material flows and the physical flows and the calculation of takt time.

A look at the passenger flow shows just where queues can occur. Everyone must go through security. Check in is only possible a certain time before flight departure with each airline checking their passengers. Customers with carry-on luggage only that have checked in online can by-pass airport check in. The simple schematic shows where the most likely problems will be – at security.

Airport Value Stream Map useful in applying Lean thinking and practice at the airport

All of us want to know we are safe, but we’d like security to be carried out with minimum inconvenience to ourselves. Travel became a whole lot more complicated for passengers after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Changes to security protocols limited the fluids we were allowed to take onboard the aircraft. If you do take liquids in your hand luggage containers must hold no more than 100ml. Containers must be in a single, transparent, resealable plastic bag, which holds no more than a litre and measures approximately 20cm x 20cm. The contents must fit comfortably inside the bag so it can be sealed. In addition, electrical items must be removed from carry-on bags and there are a set of restrictions covering medicines, baby food and personal items etc. A full explanation is here:  https://www.gov.uk/hand-luggage-restrictions

What is the work to be done to ensure safe security processing of each passenger?

Security protocols necessitate that everyone is processed. This involves removing clothing such as coats, scarves and boots, metallic items such as belts, watches and some jewellery and taking items from their carry-on bags. Frequent flyers often know the routine (although on my first trip I realised just how much I used to do on auto-pilot) but everyone needs one grey tray which holds their carry on bag and items that need to be scanned. Most will need two trays and some people may need even more.

It doesn’t take a lean thinker long to see that this process is not designed for flow. In the newly refurbished Terminal 2, I stood in my (slowly moving) Ohno circle observing the process. Each person moves to a stall. They can then get a tray, place it in a pre-load area, put items in the tray, move the tray onto the conveyor, get the next tray and repeat the cycle until all their items are in grey trays. However, getting your tray onto the conveyor is a challenge. The security person must intervene, stopping all trays upstream of yours, so that your tray can move.

On my second visit I needed 3 trays. One for a winter coat and my laptop bag, one for my carry on bag and one for my laptop, ipad and liquids. I waited (what felt like an age but was probably between 5 and 40 seconds) for each tray to be placed on the conveyor. Whilst it may only be 5 seconds in many cases, these seconds add up, becoming a queue across the hundreds of passengers processed per hour. From memory there were 5 stalls and only one security person moving the trays. 

Typical Airport Security Layout that can be improved with Lean thinking and practice at the airport

Can we Prepare the Customer?

So much more could be done to prepare the customer. Just taking the concept of SMED and doing as much as a passenger can to separate out items before the stall would save an enormous amount of time. Of course, speeding up willing trays won’t help if the bottleneck is then the inspection stage – where a security person looks at the X-Ray of your items they pass through the scanner. I had time to observe the loading of the scanner. It was frequently waiting for the next tray or stopped. 

Not only is the time longer because of passengers waiting to load grey trays, off-loading the trays takes longer. If a passenger’s trays pass inspection they are not together. This makes it longer to unload the trays. Once there are too many trays completed but not removed the X Ray process can’t operate. On my second trip one of my trays was rejected. The sealed liquid bag was slightly open apparently. This gave me the opportunity to deeply observe how backing up of trays on the conveyor occurs.

In addition I observed the rejection queue. First in, first out (FIFO) wasn’t followed, multiple picking up and shuffling of trays was observed, with all trays being turned through 90 degrees so more room could be made for more trays! What value did that add for safety, the passenger or the staff? The real tragedy was that the airport team members were overburdened and stressed and customers were disgruntled. In addition, I hate to think how much retail revenue was lost as passengers didn’t have time to shop or enjoy a drink before their departure and how many departures didn’t occur on time?

Experiments to design a better flow -  Lean thinking and practice at the airport

Change Point Management

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Whilst we all have sympathy for operational managers having to cope with staff shortages do they not plan what the minimum level of resources to operate effectively is? In my mobile Ohno circle I observed 7 staff members ushering passengers, re-arranging the retractable barriers, pointing people where to go etc. All of these roles were non-value creating, not standardised and in no way helped with the primary purpose of security clearing passengers in a safe, timely manner.

In short change point management is needed to assess the 4Ms of the security process – Man/Woman, Method, Machines and Materials. Are the inputs to the process sufficient for the required output? The people engaged in doing the work should observe each other and define the work elements required. Analysing the work, isn’t about working harder. On the contrary, the focus should be on making it easier for workers to provide value for customers.

Teach the Team to Improve the Work

By analysing the work as successive items (or in this case passengers going through security) enables the team to see how repeatable the work is and can be. The aim is to agree a lowest repeatable time – not the fastest time, but the time the workers agree they can achieve throughout the working time and without overburdening them. The outcome of such analysis is an understanding of the total work content required to complete one item (in this case security checked passenger from start to finish.)

Machines, materials and layout all need to be considered. Good design in each of these areas facilitates flow. Ask if equipment can meet the takt time, how much automation we need to apply and how the layout can be arranged so one person can process one passenger  as efficiently as possible. While we may never run the process this way, such thinking results in us challenging the boundaries in roles that we create. It also helps us think about the material management elements of getting the right items, to the right place at the right time.

To achieve a flow that meets takt time, work needs to be distributed effectively and in the optimal sequence. A useful way to think about any step in the process is that it can only be eliminated, combined, rearranged or simplified. From our experience it is not unusual to be able to kaizen cycle time by 20-30% once the process is established. The extra capacity could dramatically reduce the overall lead time required.  


Dan Jones and Jim Womack illustrated the power of thinking (and rethinking) end to end flows for the things we as customers consume. The airport queues show just how far away the organisations that provide us our travel process are from delivering this. Designing the work involves integrating 4Ms (Man/Woman, Methods, Materials and Machines) to develop a safe, efficient continuous flow. The passengers that go through security make up batches that end up taking off on aircraft. The more aircraft in a given period of time, the more passengers (hopefully for the airline) and therefore the more people needing to process through security. Telling people to come earlier really isn’t the answer if the number of planes taking off earlier is the same time as your plane. That just increases the number of passengers in the terminal.

Thinking that this situation isn’t fixable quickly – in days and weeks, rather than weeks and months – is also disingenuous. Arguably though, lessons need to be learned so that processes are designed and reviewed so that they work as designed and are able to be continuously improved. Thinking through customer purpose in addition to individual organisational purpose would be a good start.

All of us can think about what we can do too. I’ll think about what I need when I next fly. Do I really need to wear a belt and watch that I need to remove at security? Can I pack my jacket and coat in my carry on? How can I pack my items, so they are easily removeable? What else can I do to ease the flow?

I, for one, am staying at home over Easter. But for the Lean Thinkers that are travelling at least you can sharpen your skills as you stand in a slowly moving Ohno circle through security. Good luck!

About LEA

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