Alaska Air Group’s Lean Transition

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Alaska Air Group’s Lean Transition

Lea Tonkin, editor in chief

An outside RIDS screen displays arrival and departure times, including countdowns to departure, for both ramp operations’ and pilots’ reference. The same information is displayed on a screen inside the jetbridge for the flight attendants and gate agents.


Dramatic performance improvements in key customer service metrics continue to mark Alaska Air Group’s lean transformation. Before progress began, senior leadership first acknowledged painful reality. By 2008, the carrier had slipped to 19th place out of 20 domestic carriers, measured as on-time delivery of passengers, baggage, and cargo. “We realized the need to change the way the business assessed environments and problems,” said Joe Bowers, director, Lean Six Sigma Office. “Employees were very dispersed and the management very ‘siloed’ around their portion of the aircraft turn.” (“Turn” refers to the tasks associated with arriving, boarding, deplaning, and departing of a single aircraft.)

“Another hurdle was that information was not common to everyone,” Bowers said. “Flight attendants were not privy to departure information that customer service agents had. Also, the company grew over the course of 80 years from a few aircraft and flights to more than 140 aircraft with multiple flights leaving concurrently.” The management team decided to get everybody together and figure out a new way of working together.

“We realized that one reason we weren’t on time is that no one had the same data. Service agents, ramp workers, and flight attendants needed to coordinate their activities,” Bowers said. For example, management discovered that various functions relied on inconsistently set clocks. IT installed outward-facing clocks in all work areas, with countdown updates according to flight numbers. When all employees worked to the same schedule and knew when a flight should leave a particular gate, problems such as getting baggage to the gate at the correct time decreased.

A huge 5S event revealed that too much equipment was stored in some areas and needed equipment was unavailable in other areas of the ramp. More than 50 percent of the airline’s Seattle-based vendors and employees participated in the 5S project and other Lean Six Sigma workshops. Participants included vendor ramp agents, food and beverage service, customer service agents, cargo, maintenance, and pilots. This event created a unique opportunity for many employees to get to know individual vendor members and create working relationships.

Continuous improvements throughout the organization boosted on-time service and other key performance indicator improvements. From 2008 through 2009, Alaska Air employees participated in approximately 40 improvement projects. Thanks to project team suggestions, a more efficient system for checking passenger documents and loading bags trimmed check-in times.

Arrival process, ramp operations, and other improvement projects contributed to Alaska Air’s progress. “We are looking at the business in a different way,” said Rhonda Smith, a process improvement manager who was a presenter at the 2011 AME annual conference in Dallas. “In operations, moving people from point A to point B, that is essential for improvement. There are also many back-office operations. We’ve been emphasizing improvement in those areas, which has affected our financial performance.” For example, airline employees developed a system to handle flight staffing better and enhanced IT group systems that support many complicated processes.

“We are building trust and collaboration,” Smith said. “We are bringing together people who were not used to working together and building better relationships among them.” Communicating regularly with people actually doing the work creates engagement.

Continuing Progress
The airline’s organization-wide lean initiatives continue to yield performance gains. “At the end of our first year, instead of a 45-minute wait for baggage, we achieved a 20-minute wait. Our flight cancellation and missed bag rates went down. We became the No. 1 on-time airline in the country,” Bowers said. “Three years later, we are consistently rated in the top three.”

Operational workshops and training sessions focus on continued 5S and other improvements. Five lean certified facilitators, three Six Sigma black belts, and training for green belt and black belt specialists support improvement initiatives. “They don’t just solve problems. They help to draw out others’ solutions,” Smith said. “They are not taking control from people, instead encouraging others to work on their problems.”

Effective metrics help employees track performance and plan next steps. “One of the keys is balanced scorecards,” Bowers said. “Operations measure everything from ramp to flight attendance performance, food service, cargo, vendor performance, etc.” If improvements don’t stick, a cross-functional team of managers looks for root causes and reports progress during weekly meetings. “We’re working on creating a customer experience, giving back time to customers,” Bowers said. “It really is about a chain of events from when a customer arrives at the airport until they get their baggage.”

Despite the airline’s dramatic shift to lean thinking and practice, leadership recognizes the need for fact-based improvements, strengthened lean tools, and a formal project pipeline. Project teams seek even better turn (around) times, reduced time to open door and get bags on an aircraft, and other gains.

The expertise needed to improve is embedded in the organization, Smith added. “We may need a core team to encourage improvements,” she said. “We have methodologies and tools, helping us to achieve financial and other results in a sustained way.”

Suggestions for successful lean implementation based on Alaska Air’s experience:

  • Training and investing in the right team is hard but critical to success.
  • Consistently following process improvement methodologies generates predictable results.
  • Engaging support from committed sponsors and financial partners makes the transition easier.
  • Working on projects that yield high business value draws the greatest support and visibility.