Are We Designing Systems for Failure?


It was a nightmare of a trip - definitely a long time, not a good time. 

My flight, on a major airline, was initially delayed three hours due to mechanical difficulties.  Apparently this particular airline doesn’t feel it’s important to notify passengers of delays even though they do make a point of collecting email addresses as well as business, home and cell phone numbers when tickets are purchased. But, as the ticket attendant pointed out in a somewhat snotty tone, it wasn’t their fault as how were they to know their plane would need a new part? 

So, while I didn’t see, nor was offered another option, I guess I was supposed to be okay with it given the ten dollar consolation lunch voucher. While the voucher was good anywhere in the airport, given the pricing, ten dollars doesn’t stretch all that far, unless one is okay with a meal consisting of candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a smile. Regardless, I bit the bullet, and decided to make the best of three unexpected hours of down time. 

But, it wasn’t quite that simple. After six and a half hours and repeated delays, the flight was finally cancelled. At that point, the airline, frantically scrambled to book all of us on other flights.

By now, knowing a community was counting on me to deliver training the next day, I was getting rather edgy especially as I still needed to catch a connecting flight to reach my final destination. But, by the skin of my teeth, and in large part due to a recent regime of workouts that meant I could run without wheezing, I was able to jog across the airport, and slide in at last call for the final connecting flight of the evening.

Alas, my luggage wasn’t quite as quick, and didn’t get to the same destination. But, here again, the airline was prepared to help me deal with their failure as they handed over an overnight package that included toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, and a t-shirt. While the t-shirt worked as a night shirt, the shaving cream and razor made it clear it was a kit designed with a man in mind. Regardless, after trying to describe my not-so-unique black suitcase, and stressing I needed the materials in that suitcase to deliver training the next day, I was handed a phone number for the department of missing luggage, told to call them in the morning, and was assured my suitcase would be delivered as soon as possible.

Finally arriving at my hotel during the wee hours of the morning, I settled in for a quality four hours of sleep. A quick shower, back into my comfortable, but not very professional clothes, and I was sort of good to go.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about my father before finally realizing the manly, old spice scent that prompted the connection, was in fact wafting from me - courtesy of the deodorant provided by the airline.

My luggage finally showed up at 3:00 pm the next day and despite my less than stellar wardrobe, the two days of workshops were well-received.

So, dear reader, by now I’m guessing you might be wondering why I’m sharing this story and why you are taking the time to read it?

Well, here’s the thing. When I talked to the guy who delivered my suitcase, I learned he works for a new company that apparently is doing quite well. The business does, however, serve a relatively narrow market niche. Ninety five percent of their business comes from delivering lost luggage, like mine, from this one major airline.

Now, I have no aspirations or experience to suggest I should ever be running an airline, but I gotta say that left me scratching my head. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The airline has put into place a system that includes overnight kits, a luggage tracking system, and a contract with a company just to deliver lost suitcases?  Wouldn‘t it make more sense simply to figure out why the luggage is getting lost in the first place, and then develop strategies to reduce its occurrence?

Of course it would. And yet, haven’t we applied that same kind of thinking to many of the systems we’ve designed within our communities? If health care costs are rising as the result of unhealthy people, shouldn’t we figure out how to keep them well?  Instead of food banks, are we doing enough to address the root causes of hunger? If transportation is polluting the environment shouldn’t we be focusing more on alternatives? If crime is rising, shouldn’t we figure out why, instead of hiring more police officers? 

For sure, I get that it’s never that simple. There will always be a need for hospitals, food banks, transportation, and police officers. I guess I’m just of the opinion we need to think about the forest as much, if not more, as we think about the trees.  Just sayin… 

Posted on 01-03-17

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