Heathrow Terminal 5

Leadership/Management and Embracing Failure. That’s what this site is about. And that’s what I got to NOT see in stark, dramatic fashion arriving in Terminal 5 last night.  A case study of the human and financial costs when ‘Leaders/Managers’ do not embrace a failure in front of them.

The failure. A sprinkling of snow that hit the UK along with freezing temperatures. While not overly dramatic, the southern UK (especially London) is not particularly well equipped for snowy weather. And reasonably so since in our two decades living here, we can count on one hand the number of times snowfall accumulated to anything. Unfortunately, when that amount does come, the system is woefully equipped to cope especially in the transportation area. And flying in from New York, I arrived at Terminal 5 mayhem that BBC2 described as worse than when it opened.

Fortunately, I was only marginally affected by a two hour wait for my bag from New York and a double fare taxi ride home. That cost was counter balanced by my fascination with the incompetence of the BAA in running this headline crisis. Hey, I got a blog post out of it! That’s a lot more than many families with young children, older people, and foreigners with no English got out of their many hours of pain directly caused by the BAA incompetence.

No, not the snow. Everyone there got the fact that weather meant planes couldn’t fly. Everyone understood that the system was stressed and their would be mix ups and delays. Not a single person of the thousands upon thousands in the Arrival Hall felt any discomfort or displeasure over those situations.

The pain came directly from BAA (owner and manager of Heathrow Airport). And the pain was caused by non-communication. Not miscommunication. Not weak communication. Complete zero, gag-order, schtumm, mute non-communication. This silence caused more pain and discomfort than any snow. It was as if there was no crisis. Maybe they felt that if they said anything, it would only make matters worse. But that it where they miscalculated. Instead of sticking their heads in the sand, they should have stood up and shared what they could (as many brave flight attendants and baggage handlers did on their own caring initiative shouting from tops of chairs bits of info they had).

Out of the failure, at least I got to see illustrated some delicious lessons on how to properly embrace failure…

Plan for Failure – Failures are a certainty. It is not a question of ‘whether’ (well, maybe it is a question of ‘weather’), but ‘when’. It seems inconceivable that BAA did not have some sort of ‘plan’ for how to deal with flights being unable to take off by things like weather or volcanoes. If there was a plan, there was no evidence of it to be seen. No extra resources called in. No special procedures. No management of the foreseeable consequences (eg. people needing guidance, people needing food and water, baggage piling up). Failure does and will happen. Don’t just pay a consultant to come up with some paper plan that ticks the box and then shove it on the shelf. Put some real thought into it and make sure the ‘people in charge’ know what to do (I am making a bold assumption that some one was in charge, but as we see time and time again in moments of crisis, one of the first problems is that there is no clear person in charge).

Communicate the Failures – The most important area of any Leadership or Management is ‘Communication’. There is no Leadership without communication. And, therefore, last night BAA displayed zero leadership. Because, as I said, there was zero communication. While I was able to ferret out nuggets of useful information from helpful BA flight crews and baggage handlers, the ‘officials’ remained mute. But there was so much they could have said to reduce the stress and pain thousands were enduring. Everyone had the same basic questions – what do I do to get my bag (fill out a claim form being handed out like confetti), where do I stay, what will the airline reimburse, how do I get reimbursed, will my bags come out, etc. A few enterprising and pushy folks found some answers, but only their ears got to hear them. The handful of customer service reps just stood around repeating themselves when they could have said it a few times on the tannoy for everyone to hear. As it happened, a woman told me that she had found her bag by just walking around. It turns out that handlers had simply unloaded lots of bags into the hall without getting them near their assigned carousel just to relieve pressure on the system. If BAA had mentioned this fact publicly, many people could have looked for their bags and many probably would have been found. There was nothing much else for people to do during five hours waits. Hundreds of bags were scattered as such and this type of announcement would have freed the system of those bags and the hall of those people and BAA of the costs to get those bags to the people later.

Moments of Truth not Metrics – I was bemused as I stood around and noticed a BAA metrics board proudly displayed for the whole world to see ‘How We’re Doing’. A 2% improvement in baggage delivery in the month of November. Yay! I never have noticed that board and never would have if the flaming irony hadn’t whacked me across the face like yesterday’s mackerel. No one gives a flying flip about a 2% increase in baggage turnaround. Won’t notice it, won’t care, won’t mention it to others. The most important thing in any relationship, including customer relationships, are ‘Moments of Truth’. How did you perform when all the chips were on the table? A 2% improvement in getting to the dinner table on time won’t matter much if you don’t get home when the baby is sick or the boiler blows up. Last night mattered. So far, before this post even, through my TripAdvisor Forum post, LinkedIn comment, Facebook Status and other commentary, hundreds of people know about the BAA failure of performance. You might as well go outside and burn that cheery poster about metrics. Moments of Truth matter most. Moments of Truth are most often times of failure.