When it comes to operating efficiently, few industries directly impact customers like aviation.

A delayed flight causes many problems, particularly if passengers are trying to make connecting flights. Moving thousands of passengers every day through ticketing, security, lines at the gate and while boarding involves a series of interlocking tasks. One hiccup, and people end up with delayed flights or missing baggage.

Given those issues, aviation is an industry that is perfect for the application of Lean Six Sigma methodology.

It’s also a massive operation. According to numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are 5,000 flights in the air at any given time every day. Other statistics that offer insight into the scope of the aviation industry include:

  • There were 15.6 million flights handled by the FAA in 2016, about 42,700 flights per day
  • There are 65,000 aviation-related pieces of equipment and systems operating every day
  • There are more than 2.5 million airline passengers every day in and out of airports in the United States
  • There are 26,527 average daily scheduled passenger flights

How can Lean Six Sigma help? By giving leaders in aviation the tools and techniques they need to fix flaws in their operations and improve the service they give customers.

About Lean Six Sigma

Lean focuses on cutting out waste in a process. Efficiency is the goal of a continuous process improvement effort. That involves eliminating anything that does not add value for customers. It also focuses on quality and performance improvement.

Six Sigma focuses on eliminating defects in both existing processes and designing new ones as error-proof as possible. The goal is to eliminate variation, add flexibility and set up systems that maximize the use of human talent. All of this gives an organization more control over the quality of the final product or service.

Combining the two can prove to be a powerful force for any organization and industry.

Lean Six Sigma and Aviation

The aviation industry involves a series of interlocking processes, each with its own challenges. In addition to the issue of safety, airlines aim to improve passenger satisfaction. There are many areas where this can go wrong, from delayed flights, missed connections, long layovers, lost luggage or, worst of all, cancelled flights.

The weather plays a role in some of these issues, and certainly that is beyond an airline’s control. However, as McKinsey & Company reported, airlines also have delays at gates after airplanes land, under-utilized aircrafts and other expensive equipment and staff that remains idle for long periods of time.

Many of these issues can be reduced or even eliminated by applying the tools used in Lean Six Sigma, including the following.

Collecting Data

One of the first steps in both Lean and Six Sigma methodologies is to gather data on the current operation to determine areas that need improvement and identify wasteful process steps. Monitoring passenger traffic flow, the number of delayed and cancelled flights and the instances of lost luggage is key. But aviation leaders also can get direct feedback from customers through surveys and focus groups, giving them the information they need on what works and doesn’t work.

Wasted Employee Time

One of the eight wastes identified in Lean is employee time. Airlines have an abundance of this, according to McKinsey & Company. Part of the issue is not accurately determining the right level of staffing both in customer service and in maintenance despite the often-routine nature of tasks. This can lead to a single clerk checking in hundreds of passengers, an understaffed baggage carousel and mechanics trying to find a part rather than working on a plane. McKinsey found that in some maintenance areas, 20-to-30% of mechanics’ time are spent in the break room.

Applying Lean’s examination of the eight areas of waste would lead to identification of these issues and provide the tools to fix them.

Delayed Departures

Getting hundreds of people down the walkway and into a plane is what typically causes delays. The application of Six Sigma can reduce and eliminate many of the duplications, delays, redundant actions and misapplied rules that lead to these delays. Six Sigma tools break the process into individual sub-processes, identifying the details of each operation as well as the time each takes. This type of data-driven, non-emotional assessment eliminates “estimated” measurements that lead to mistakes.

Baggage Handling

There’s simply no good reason why an airline cannot get a bag from the airplane to the baggage carousel in the time it takes a passenger to walk from his or her gate to the baggage carousel – much less lose bags. Much like with moving passengers onto planes, Lean Six Sigma can identify the areas of waste in the process, streamline workflows and create standards for the time spent accomplishing tasks

Customer Service

Some airports now have automatic check-in procedures where passengers can print their boarding pass and baggage ticket. This helps speed up the process, but it also puts the work on the customer, some of whom may cause long delays simply because they have never done it before. Things aren’t much better when airline employees do the job. McKinsey notes a lack of standard time frames to check-in passengers, with the time spent on doing the task varying by as much as 50% between agents!

Eliminating this kind of variation is one of the things Six Sigma does best.

Examples of Success

These are just a few of the areas in the aviation industry where the application of Lean Six Sigma could improve efficiency and quality of service. Some airlines have already become trailblazers in this area.

Southwest Airlines is perhaps the best example. The company has applied Lean Six Sigma, particularly in the area of customer service. The airline frequently requests feedback from customers. It was the first airline to use ticketless flights. They use adequate staffing and self-check-in terminals to speed up check-in. Onboard, they offer free Wi-Fi, free eBooks and video on demand.

Southwest has the lowest number of passenger complaints among any airline, according to the Department of Transportation.

The company also has a “no layoff” policy with employees and managed to create jobs even during last decade’s recession.

Other aviation industry companies have also instituted Lean Six Sigma. American Airlines used Lean techniques to streamline their passenger claims process. The International Air Transport Association offers Lean Six Sigma classes that are aviation focused, as does process improvement specialists ACCLINO.

More jobs also are beginning to appear in the aviation industry that require Lean or Six Sigma training.

All this adds up to an aviation industry that is beginning to turn to Lean Six Sigma. That’s a good thing for airlines who need more efficient operations. And, most importantly, for their passengers.

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