Monday, March 31, 2008


10 training problems that led to meltdown at Terminal 5
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.

Problem 2 – No ramp up
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.

The lack of real ‘dry-run’ training was obvious, along with a lack of contingency planning. Kumar relied on assessment exercises from the clearly hopeless and hapless Potential Squared. Go see them in action at the appropriately titled ‘Effective Execution’ breakfast on 3 April! I hear they’re renaming themselves ‘Problems Squared’.

Problem 3 – Directions and parking
At 4 am passengers arrived, only to be confronted with the same problems as the staff in trying to find somewhere to park. The road signs were not clear outside the terminal, and people said they were given wrong directions once inside. Familiarisation training and some simple directions online, and on paper, would have solved the problems for staff.

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.

Problem 9 - Queue management

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.


Anonymous said...

Not like you to mince words, Donald...

Anonymous said...

You are probably accurate in your assessment of contributory factors to this embarrassment.

Just not sure whether said head of people change was directly accountable for the comms and training around this project - does seem to lack necessary experience. Was this an internal initiative or was a contractor engaged to include raining as part of change management?

Did CEO/senior decion maker listen to bottom-up advice on how to implement training properly?

Good project management may be evidenced by risk aversion practices and visibility of artefacts such as Gantts. But we know that what sticks in complex change is the ownership, decision making (often painful) and leadership qualities of those made responsible.

Unknown said...

So many reasons named! I agre with you on some of them. I have 5-year project management experience and I start to think that most of the problems are caused by the lack of time to stop and think a little. You have to do so much. You have lots of duties. Get updates from the team, update the plans, make up reports... You start going crazy! May be the time has come to change something? I was amazed by this post. I never thought of it this way. Now I'm going to try it out.

chipper said...

It would be fascinating to find out more about Potential Squared - the consultancy orgamisation that advised on staff training. In particular, it would be interesting to know how much they were paid for their extremely valuable input; and also whether they plan to do a post-mortem analysis of the whole fiasco. It also relevant to find that BAA / BA do not appear on their list of otherwise prestigious customers on their website - surely they're not 'covering their tracks'??

Charles Jennings said...

I came through the new terminal at Beijing Airport a few weeks ago - 3 days after it opened. It was a sublime experience. They planned it on a 'ramp-up' model with just a very few flights coming in and going out each day.

At every step - check-in, customs check, terminal transportation (great trains!), boarding processes etc. - the ratio of terminal staff to passengers was about 1:1. Every staff member had a gaggle of trainees clustered around them doing on-the-job (or very near the job) learning to observe how to carry out specific processes. Sometimes it was a trainee under instruction who carried out the process.

The pollution and the crazy car drivers in Beijing may cause havoc for the Olympics, but the new Airport terminal will be a pleasure for visitors....

Anonymous said...

What a shame that the only time training gets into the press is when it goes wrong. There are so many good training companies and people out there. I agree, middle managers need all the help that they can get. But with a downturn looming, you can bet that training will be one of the things that gets cut back as a result!

John Wootton said...

They need to be put in special measures

Erik Petersen said...

I am interested mainly in the IT side of things and they have been unfairly blamed. I disagree with you that project mgmnt was bad (on time, on budget). I agree strongly that risk management was atrocious. I argue that the inadequate analysis of day 1 risk was the main root cause of the problem.

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