Identify Areas of Highest Leverage (airport scenario)

Small changes can produce big results–but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

There is a system thinking principle that states that small changes can produce big results, however, these changes are often the least obvious. These small, impactful changes are commonly referred to as the areas of highest leverage. Always look for opportunities to make a small change that will produce a big result. Win-win.

Identify the Problem – Airport Security Chaos

Recently, while traveling, I experienced a bit of chaos navigating a certain airport’s security area (*cough Atlanta *). In defense of the airport, I’ve traveled through this airport many times without incident; however, this evening was different. There was an element of chaos in the air. Lines were long, many of the staff were running around frantically, visible annoyed and impatient with passengers. The passengers, many having connecting flights, were also impatient with the process. It’s an understatement to state that tensions were high (in the midst of the chaos, there were actual arguments between passengers regarding who should and should not be able to break into the front of the line to catch a connecting flight).

Given that I prefer to use my brains, not my hands, I used my hours waiting in the security queue to analyze the problem and to see if I could determine the point of highest leverage; because that’s what systems thinkers do. This analysis process is fun, however not having the influence to enforce change is not.

Understand the System

The first step is to outline all of the (visual) parts and pieces that make up the system. Keep in mind that in this exercise, as a passenger, I’m only privy to the parts of the system that I can observe. Next, I need to understand how the parts interact and influence other parts of the system. I’m limiting the system parts to the point in which a passenger enters the TSA area. I identified four major areas.

  1. Passenger Prep areas – people preparing themselves and their items to be scanned. This area is where passengers are removing their shoes, preparing their belongs and themselves for scanning. There were three passenger prep areas (lines)
  2. Item Scanning – items being scanned (one item scanning area per passenger prep area)
  3. Body Scanning – people being scanned (one body scanning area per passenger prep area)
  4. Passenger Outgoing area – people preparing to leave the TSA area


Identify Leverage Points

Modeling the airport security’s default flow was straightforward, most US airports follow a very similar workflow. Given, that the procedures are common and not new, why was there so much chaos on this particular evening? I’d ruled out obvious outliers: uncommon flight delays leading to an unexpected number of passenger arrivals, broken resources (machines down), airport construction (limited space). I could not rule out things like break down in staffing resource (people leaving early, calling out sick, etc.).

I observed the following:

  1. Only One of the three screening lines was moving very quickly. This line didn’t seem to have as many people with questions or issues to be discussed. For two of the three lines, passengers were waiting for the belt to move so that they may place their belongings on the scanning belt.
  2. Item scanning halted – For two of the three lines, the belt which moves items through the scanner had stopped, and there was no personnel attending the scanner (that person was helping another staff member evaluated a scanned image)
  3. People & Item Rescanning   – For two of the three lines, the scanning area was filled with people having their bodies or laptops rescreened. The personnel performing the rescreening was the same as the personnel that performed the initial scan.


Here we’ve identified a few reinforcing feedback loops.  Reinforcing feedback loops (+) causes growth or decline; it indicates when both factors increase or decrease at the same time. For example, as the number of passengers in TSA increases, the number of items to be processed will increase.  Also, as exceptions increase, the need for more staffing to deal with the exceptions will increase. In identifying leverage points, we should focus on the areas that we can control (more easily).

The Highest Leverage Point

The root cause is that there was no clear process for handling exceptions without impacting the default workflow.

When the staff assigned to the default areas are required to handle exceptions, the default workflow suffers. The root cause of the bottleneck was due to staff leaving their assigned posts to handle exceptions. For the line with few exceptions to handle, the default workflow worked very well. However, had any exceptions occurred, that line would’ve suffered as well because the root cause is that there was no clear process for handling exceptions without impacting the default workflow.

The are two opportunities to make small changes here:

  1. Identifying an exceptions handling area and team – perhaps there was one and perhaps it was not being used appropriately
  2. Identifying someone with a 30,000 feet view to oversee the system (i.e. Who’s in charge, anyway?)

Next: We could use a tool like Insight Maker to handle inputs for the variables that impact the system’s functioning such as passenger arrivals, machines available, etc.



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