Stack em. Pack em. And Rack em
In 1930, British aero engineer and aircraft builder Richard Fairey paid the Vicar of Harmondsworth £15,000 for a 150-acre plot to build a private airport to assemble and test aircraft. A single grass runway and a handful of hastily erected buildings later, and Fairey’s Great West Aerodrome was born.
Today, you’ll recognise this as one of the world’s busiest airports – Heathrow – where each day 1,400 flights take off and land – that’s a plane every 45 seconds, and nearly half a million per year. And guess how many runways it now has?
Yes, one of the world’s busiest airport has just two runways. In August 2015, a record-breaking 257,312 passengers safely arrived/departed via two humble strips of tarmac. If Heathrow sneezes, the world catches a cold, so what lessons can we take from this impressive machine?
Getting the right bums on the right seats
Heathrow employs over 70,000 people within the airport boundary, that’s the same number as the population of Guildford. But any business, whatever the size, must start with the basics. When looking to take a business to the next level most people will naturally start with the strategy. My experience however tells me that the weakness is actually in the right execution – getting the right structure, right people and right processes in place before you can even think about your 1 year, 3 year and future strategies. Your environment will dictate your performance so only once you’ve got this right can you move onto the strategy.
Heathrow’s environment is everything; the 70,000+ staff operate in a distinct structure with defined roles and responsibilities.
During his 8-hour shift, duty manager Gavin is responsible for despatching over 400 planes. This doesn’t mean of course Gavin is there to fly the planes himself, but he is the person that is ultimately accountable if something goes wrong. I come across too many businesses that are missing target because both partners have been sharing the responsibility of sales and as a result, nothing is actually getting done. Only one person can be ultimately responsible for one area.
Heathrow has 65 air traffic controllers who undergo three years of training. But it’s just as critical for your staff to have high levels of will (that’s all about the right attitude to do the job), and not just the required skill. Heathrow employs 350 engineers around the clock to fix faults. Yes, they have the necessary skills to undertake their job, but they are also 100% aligned to the airports vision of efficiency and service. A broken belt at security caused by a build-up of fluff and dust is dealt with such efficiency and care because they know their colleagues at security will have a queue of tens to hundreds in just a matter of minutes, with a knock on effect spreading across the entire airport.
Processes, processes, processes
When a company starts out, it is possible to run reasonably well without much planning; dealing with each new piece of work or challenge as it arrives and simply getting by. That is because the business only has short term goals. If you wanted it to expand, however, it would have to systemise or risk ‘growing broke’. Haphazard processes simply aren’t robust enough to cope with additional activity, and the growth would only serve to amplify all of the problems or gaps in the existing model.
Heathrow is one big process.
• Terminal 5 aims to process 35 passengers per security lane every 15 minutes – the process is quicker in summer when travellers are not carrying coats.
• It takes less than two hours to prepare a Boeing 777 with 66 tons of fuel, five tons of catering supplies, 3.6 tons of luggage and 23 tons of mail and cargo.
• A total of 27,260 separate items have to be stocked on to a Boeing 747-400 before it departs on a long-haul flight. With space at such a premium careful calculations are made to ensure sufficient quantities are carried without waste and to keep down fuel costs.
• In the event of a power cut, it takes just 20 milliseconds for engineers to switch to the backup power supply.
• Heathrow has to consider scale across all customer touch points – one bottle of Chanel No 5 is sold at World Duty Free every nine minutes.
Whilst you are not operating at this scale, have you mapped out, documented and shared your processes within your business?
Set up Alerts & Alarms
It’s often said that a good manager is one who can delegate effectively, rather than feel that they need to do everything themselves. So, if you have set up your system correctly and put the right people in the right roles with the right amount of motivation, direction and enthusiasm; all that you then need is a way of measuring the system.
The idea of having alerts or alarms operating within the business is that they are activated in real time. It amazes me that most business owners don’t know how they are performing until their accountant presents them with a set of year-end figures. Often this can be 12 to18 months later. How can you possibly deal with a problem that far in the past?
If you have identified everybody’s 100% and you set up real-time (preferably daily) measurements to check that the target is being achieved, then you can see if there is an issue before it becomes a problem. It might just be a blip or a bad day, that you can choose to ignore or monitor for a while, but if you ‘don’t know’ then you are running blind. Things go wrong from time to time, the unexpected or unfortunate does happen, but if you have a robust system you can either work through it or make the necessary adjustments – instantly.
At Heathrow, they even know that a vehicle breakdown on their inbound tunnel will lead to a traffic jam on the M4, 15 miles away, in just seven minutes, so they have a team and process in place to jump into action once they are alerted.
Never compromise on your quality, however ‘busy’ you are
There is tendency for some businesses to start cutting corners as they scale. There’s nothing wrong with streamlining, but you must never compromise on your brand promise.
More people fly out of Heathrow in First Class than any other airport, so stocks need to be at the optimum levels at all times; one lounge goes through 6-8 bottles of champagne first thing in the morning and spends over £20,000 every year on flowers, all in the bid to win back loyal customers.
Even with everything else the airport has to contend with, it goes that extra mile. When Lola the hippo was transported she was given a shower just before the flight to ensure maximum comfort.
And finally…you can only land one plane at a time
A key challenge in any business as it scales is to not get bogged down in the detail. The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch, outlines that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example:
• 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers
• 80% of a company’s complaints come from 20% of its customers
• 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of the time its staff spend
• 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of its products
• 80% of a company’s sales are made by 20% of its sales staff
As a business you have easy access to dramatic improvements in profitability by focusing on the most effective areas and eliminating, ignoring, automating, delegating or retraining the rest, as appropriate.
But there is a tendency for most business, regardless of size, to solve the immediate problems facing the individual, department or business. 90% of the time the actual issues/problem or challenge will only be solved forever if something else is ‘fixed’. Invariably the cause of the problem is something else that is bigger than the symptom, hence the 80/20.
It is key to identify the 20% of things that are causing the 80% of issues, as by solving this you’ll be solving A LOT of issues.