Living through a Line Stop
I was standing in the security check line at the Portland Airport on my way home from a Christmas visit to my son Nathan in Oregon when I got to be a living, breathing part of a classic process check. Stay with me here.
We were schlepping through security in the usual way when I heard one of the TSA staff yell “Code Blue”! This obviously meant something; immediately, three other TSA officials echoed the single statement “Code Blue”! At that point several things happened, in less than five seconds;
- All six security lines stopped; a junior TSA official physically blocked each line.
- All Xray machines stopped.
- All TSA people had a single, calm instruction to us in the lines; “Please remain where you are.”
- Five senior TSA people RAN to the exit point of the security area, where there seemed to be some activity that took their attention.
And I stood there thinking “Cool!!! This will be really neat!! What can I observe?” I suspect I was alone in that perspective amongst my fellow travelers.
Toyota is famous in its automotive assembly lines for “line stops”; using a pull cord, any work associate can, literally, stop the entire assembly line to correct a quality problem, on the spot. On that signal, supervisors and technicians move quickly to the area to correct the problem and then restart the line. Longtime friend of this blog, Mark Rosenthal, has written well about the four key steps of a line stop:
- Detect the error.
- Stop the process.
- Correct the immediate problem
- Install a countermeasure
And I witnessed TSA do three of these four steps. They had clearly rehearsed it and did it very efficiently and professionally.
First, the TSA team detected the error. I don’t know what “Code Blue” is and I couldn’t find a reference on the web to TSA’s use of it. That’s probably their intent. From the commotion I observed, it could have been a person leaving the search area without being released. I don’t know. But, it was clearly a problem TSA considered serious.
Immediately, things stopped. There was NO movement and I mean none. The entire set of six security lines shut down immediately. No bags moved. No people moved. It got really quiet. The ONLY motion was designated TSA people running to the exit area. It felt almost like a cartoon sequence, in which a bustling, busy process stops. Instantly.
In about 60 seconds, TSA fixed whatever the problem was. An official standing near the exit area stated, authoritatively, “All Clear.” Other officials repeated “All Clear,” and, as quickly as we had stopped, the process came back to life. We moved through security as if nothing had happened.
I have no idea if TSA pursued a countermeasure, if they did a “post mortem” to see how they could have prevented whatever triggered this Code Blue.
While observing all of this, I got to be “work-in-process.” Really. I was “unsaleable.” I had removed my hiking boots and plunked them in the tub queued for Xray machine. My liquids were out and visible. I was separated from my briefcase. In my stocking feet, I was hardly “finished goods.” (I was a little better off than the guy in front of me. He had a huge, metal belt buckle, which he had put into the Xray line. He was at risk of his jeans going to his knees had we moved.)
What did I learn?
- Line stops work. In this critical security issue, the basics made it go.
- Rehearsal is vital. I was impressed with the combination of speed, urgency and calm by the TSA folks. This only happens with practice. This is how effective teams work.
- Minimize WIP. Only a relative handful of us were WIP…most of the people in queue were still fully dressed. When we minimize WIP, we can do line stops, repeatedly, to drive quality while not hammering throughput.
Think through where your “Code Blues” show up. And smile and thank a TSA agent next time you travel.