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The TSA and the Kobayashi Maru

…or, Jobs I am Glad I Don’t Have

I saw an interesting report yesterday about a passenger in San Diego who videotaped an interaction with some TSA employees. Reportedly, the passenger opted out of the backscatter screening, but then threatened to have the screener arrested if he “touched his junk.”

Now, I’m not going to get into the details about this incident. Instead, I would like to address the bigger picture. This most recent report was about the intrusiveness of searches and infringement on privacy.

But on any given day, you may also see headlines such as these two…

In fact, the second one comes from a site called ‘Homeland Stupidity’.

So, it appears that the TSA has a choice. Be vigorous in its inspection and be blasted for invasion of privacy, or use less rigorous methods, and face the consequences of missing dangerous materials.

This dilemma reminded me of the no-win test, the Kobayashi Maru, used by the Starfleet Academy in Star Trek to test new cadets. Essentially, the fledgling officer has to choose from between two choices, both with bad outcomes.

Unfortunately, the TSA employees are the ones who face this results of this no-win situation every day, not the decision makers. The screeners face thousands of people passing them every day. The majority of passengers seem to have an opinion that either the screeners are being invasive, or are ineffective. Imagine going to work each day knowing that the majority of your customers were not satisfied. I’ve got faith in people, and I think most passengers recognize that the TSA agents are doing a great job in a demanding situation, but that doesn’t mean that they are satisfied with the way security is done.

I think the TSA is...

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In a perfect world, there’d be multiple airports in each city. One would have the no fuss security screening where those that value speed but are willing to take a risk would fly.

At the other airport would be higher ticket cost, longer lines, and thorough searches. But presumably, the safety record would be much better.

You see, in the real world, customers choose what they want, and match themselves to the business that meets their needs the best. In the world of air travel, unless you live in a major market like New York or Chicago, you probably don’t have the option to choose from between multiple airports. And even if you do, you’ll still see TSA uniforms wherever you end up.

So the Lean lesson in all this is to avoid placing your employees in situations where they can’t win. Managers can’t tell their teams to focus on quality, but then get angry when the line stops and hurts productivity. Bosses can’t expect participation in daily improvement, but then punish people for mistakes when the changes don’t work out perfectly.

Nobody wants to go to work at a place where they can’t finish the day feeling like they did a good job. Fortunately, most jobs don’t put people in the position that the public puts the TSA in. But if you are not sure, ask your team to answer these two simple questions anonymously.

  1. How do you know at the end of the day if you’ve done a good job?
  2. How many days a week do you go home feeling successful?

Hopefully, the answers to these questions won’t be surprising. But if they are, you’ve got some work to do.


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Share Your Thoughts    |4 comments|


  • […] motivi principali perché il metodo delle 5 perché potrebbe non funzionare? (traduzione automatica)The TSA and the Kobayashi Maru dal blog Gotta Go Lean di Jeff Hajek: Due domande da chiedere ai vostri dipendenti in forma anonima […]

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brian Buck, Tim McMahon. Tim McMahon said: RT @Velaction: The TSA and the Kobayashi Maru – I saw an interesting report yesterday about a passenger in San Diego… http://ow.ly/1a0kt1 […]

  • John Hunter says:

    I think you ask the wrong question. I think your question is similar to a CEO saying to Taiichi Ohno:

    I care most about quality – providing excellent products to the customer. Either add more inspectors or tell me we have enough inspectors and tell me who we need to replace.

    , more of my thoughts on the topic http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2010/11/16/airport-security-with-lean-management-principles/

    There is another choice – find effective methods to improve quality (better security), reduce waste ($ spent by TSA, people wasting time in line…), respect people. There are many bad things about the current situation at airports they include:

    poor security measures (not well designed to reduce risks)
    far too intrusive.

    BOTH should be fixed. As well as reducing waste. And the way to do so is to CHANGE the system – not either add to or take away from what is done now.

    The front line TSA people are in a horrible situation. This is the classic situation where Dr. Deming would empathize with the employees and blast the senior leadership who have failed their customers AND their employees.

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      Great point. Improvement should focus on both productivity and quality. I’m remiss for not making that point.
      But along the journey, there are tradeoffs. I see that the TSA is attempting to make improvements. Some are off the mark. Some are right on. Unfortunately, at this moment, nobody has come up with the idea that is more effective, less invasive, and less wasteful than current methods. Doesn’t mean we should stop seeking it or give up, but given the current technology, the TSA has to make a tradeoff.
      The issue here is not one of operations, though. It is one of philosophy. Even Toyota segments itself by Lexus and Toyota brands. If it tried to make a brand right in the middle–maybe with a tagline like ‘somewhat better quality for 50% more’–that would likely not appeal to the luxury car drivers or those conscious of economy.
      That’s where I see the TSA struggling. There are two distinct groups of customers, and the TSA is right in the middle, able to please neither.
      I thoroughly agree with your last point about Deming. I’m re-reading “Out of the Crisis” again, so it strikes close to home.
      As always, thanks for commenting.

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