The problem with the ‘big bang’ opening of T5 was that it blew up in their face. It's not often that training gets into the national press, but Heathrow's T5 fiasco put it on every front page for several days, with hundreds of cancelled flights and a backlog of over 15,000 pieces of luggage. So what went wrong?
Problem 1 – Wrong training boss
Veronica Kumar, the 29 year-old, hapless ‘Head of People ad Change’ at BAA, had arranged movies and popcorn to familiarize people with T5. Even cornier were the mock boarding cards printed ‘Are you ready’. The answer, in real life, turned out to be a resounding ‘NO, we’re not’.
Kumar had already hit the national press in February with her outrageous comments to Human Resources magazines, where she claimed that the abolition of unions was the ‘nirvana’ scenario for BAA ad T5. She’s clearly out of control and certainly out of her depth.
First, let’s factor out the technical problems – lifts and IT systems didn’t work, showing a lack of full load testing. Surely it would have been sensible to have ramped up over a longer period. This would have given them time to complete the ‘training’ in the real environment, as well as iron out technical problems.
Problem 3 – Directions and parking
Problem 4 – Inadequate IT training
Staff faced an unfamiliar process in security causing further delays. Passengers were arriving but there were too few staff to cope. Some simple IT training to familiarise staff and operators with the new system, would have worked well.
Problem 5 - Muddling through in middle management
The Observer reported staff as saying that during the inadequate training days prior to the opening, any staff questions were bounced back with 'I don't know' and 'It will be clear on the day'." This, above all, shows the real weakness – a lack of management training in middle management. The British tradition of muddling through doesn’t work in a complex, highly-technical environment that needs integrated processes and behaviours. ‘It will be all right on the night’ seems to be the dominant value.
Problem 6 - Pitiful Project management
Project management planning skills are often very slight. Managers don’t have the ability to simply plan. Few can use project management software and many have only a basic understanding of assumptions, constraints, critical paths, serial and parallel processes and dependencies. Gantt charts are as rare as winning lottery tickets.
Problem 7 - Rueful risk management
There was clearly a failure to assess risk through detailed ‘what-if’ and scenario planning techniques. This led to a failure in the use of ‘contingency’ and ‘contingency resources’ - another common middle-management failing. Our default is ‘muddling through’, not contingency planning, and it is simply not good enough.
Problem 8 - Crap communications skills
The British are famously reserved. This is what Kate Fox in her excellent book ‘Watching the English’ called our social ‘dis-ease’. It cripples us when it comes to clear, concise and public communication. When the shit hits the fan, we tend to mumble and grumble.
The lack of problem solving and communications skills in middle management is obvious. Panic, disappearing acts and inadequate planning are the norm. The solution to many of the problems at T5 was quick and honest communications to the people in queues. Managers and staff were scared to speak to people or said things that were untrue. On a launch of this scale, there should have been a small army of helpful, tee-shirted staff ready to answer questions.
The British are supposedly the world’s leaders in queuing. I’m not so sure. There’s nothing like Brits abroad to destroy that myth. We’d stamp on our grannies to get one ahead of anyone at an Easyjet gate. As we consider ourselves self-disciplined in queues, we assume that they don’t need managing. This leads to squabbles and unnecessary angst, as queues build up, criss-cross and when second gates open there’s an unholy rush to skip the first queue. A training task if I’ve ever see one.
Problem 10 - Culture of complaint
When problems do occur, our first reaction is to blame someone else. The staff blame management, management blame the layer of management above them. Leaving poor Willie Whats-his-name, BAs CEO, saying ‘the buck stops here’. Rather than take direct responsibility, and action, staff and middle managers are far too often inclined to stand around, wait and moan.