Posted by: Ron Hanscome | February 15, 2010

Airline Lessons Learned — Too Lean to Handle Disruption?

First off – I’ve been bad. Several unexpected (but very welcome) client projects took precedence over blogging during the past month. Not to mention preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Lima, Peru to teach English with my wife, son and 26 other “gringos” at Flores de Villa, a shantytown built on an abandoned garbage dump on the outskirts of town. Since I’m sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on a Monday morning waiting for the flight to Atlanta (the first leg of the trip), it’s an ideal time to post…especially since I shouldn’t be here at all right now…

You see, our group was originally scheduled (months ago) on a flight from MSP to ATL Saturday morning; however, weather along the East Coast combined with snow in Atlanta on Friday to cause a cascading cacophony of chaos through the system — planes couldn’t get to where they needed to go for the next day’s flights, causing more cancellations. So, our flight was cancelled on Saturday, and the next available spot for a group our size was to fly out two days later (today).  When your trip is only 9 days to begin with, taking 2 days away is a significant impact.

So, what does this have to do with your organization’s talent management efforts? In my view, only part of the issue with travel over this past weekend was about scheduling (getting the right plane and the right crew to the right airport at the right time); the other major contributing factor was the relative lack of capacity to handle disruption. Much has been written during the past few years about the airline industry’s financial woes, and many carriers have worked diligently to trim excess capacity from the system, and increase profitability by running as many flights as possible as full as possible. While this has certainly helped improve the bottom line, it has also negatively impacted the airline’s ability to develop and execute contingency plans for significant disruptions. In the end, it’s not good for any airline to have a message on its toll-free number that (once you sort through the customer supportspeak) basically said, “It’s a mess, we’re swamped, don’t leave a message, call again.”

How does this relate to your own talent management and workforce planning efforts? It’s critical to realistically assess your organizational capacity to deal with disruption, especially as it pertains to your key job families — if you are staffed so lean that a given function only works if everything is going right, then the first unforeseen issue will cascade through the system and cause any number of “ripple effects” that could damage your external brand as well as internal employee engagement. So, determine your risk tolerance and how much disruption you can afford to handle, and plan appropriately. Hopefully you will be able to use this recent airline example to fight for some increased staffing levels in your key jobs.

Well, time to get on that plane…wish me luck…;-)

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