What We Can Learn from the TSA About Management - Clear and Open

What We Can Learn from the TSA

Here’s a fun story about my own stubborn naiveté, the infamous TSA, and what it means to take ownership of responsibilities. It also helps you save a bunch of time the next time you fly, and since the TSA is too incompetent to communicate their policies proactively, I’m offering my services to them here by proxy.

I just completed a trip that involved the increasingly dehumanizing experience known as “flying,” a term that still invokes a sense of freedom and adventure despite being nowhere to be found in the air travel infrastructure.

With my shoes off, bag of liquids removed, iPad out, and pockets empty, I was ready to have a seamless experience of the art form known to some as “security theater.”

Alas, I was foiled!

On the other side of the conveyor belt, all that emerged were my liquids, my ipad, and my shoes which I gathered awkwardly, wondering what happened. I saw then a line of newly installed desks for inspection carry-on items, and a queue of a half dozen bags being ferried to those desks. My carry-on and my “personal item” (my favorite piece of airline jargon) were despondently waiting in that queue. What new bureaucratic treachery is this? I examined the examinations in progress.

It was then I learned they looked for food, like officious, uniformed hyena.

I heard an agent say the machines can’t tell the difference between food and explosives, something that the elite TSA R&D team apparently discovered through their tireless efforts since the liquid limitations implemented over twelve years ago. I’m sure they figured it out in the nick of time.

In content, I am annoyed, but I can live with the need to remove food from bags. What is inexcusable, however, is how they’ve implemented this change. Moving through security took literally twice as long because there was absolutely no communication about this policy whatsoever at both the airports I had the displeasure of using.

I forgave Maui’s OGG for this because this kind of incompetence is par for the course in Hawaii, but from SFO I expected better, and naively tried to help. As my carry-on was searched, I said, “I don’t understand. If this is the new policy, why don’t you tell people to take their food out like you do liquids and electronics? How were we supposed to know?”

“We have to inspect the food whether it’s in a bag or not,” replied the polite but insipid agent, completely missing my point.

“But wouldn’t it save time to have people remove the food like we do liquids?” Another agent overheard as she ferried another bag from the belt and chimed in.

“But then people from international would have to take apart and repack their bags.”

I see, because the food thing is not (yet) an international policy like the liquids one is.

“So instead of the minority of international people having to reorganize their bags, the majority of all passengers have their carry-ons manually inspected? I don’t think that adds up to saving time.”

“Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just follow them,” the first agent said, but what he really meant was:

“You just found the insensitivity and lack of critical thinking in my organization, and I’m too disengaged to care, therefore too incompetent to do anything, but rather than admit this, here’s an excuse that portrays me as a helpless victim who’s powerless to change the absurd stupidity in which I choose to work for half of my waking hours. Have a nice day.”

The most disappointing part for me was that he could have said:

“You know, that’s a really good point. I’m going to talk with my manager about that. I’m sorry for the hassle and thanks for your feedback.”

Even if he was lying, that would have been ostensibly good customer service. I know what you’re thinking, “Josef, it’s the TSA, what do you expect?” I know, I know, but if I didn’t think we all could do better, then I wouldn’t do what I do. That’s partially an excuse, I admit it, because there’s certainly some parts of reality I still have a difficult time accepting. So let’s sum up the lessons from this blog:

  1. Take your food out of your carry-on even though the TSA won’t ask you to save yourself time and hassle.
  2. Communicate changes to your customers before they happen.
  3. Train your employees what ownership means…ongoingly, and any time they show a lack of ownership.
  4. Speak slowly and politely to TSA agents, many of them don’t follow basic logic and can’t think for themselves.
  5. You’ll enjoy air travel more if you check your critical thinking with your bag.
  6. Train your employees to use customer feedback to make recommendations to management for change.
  7. Stay tuned for more exciting and inevitable inconveniences brought to you by the all-star cast members of TSA’s Security Theater.


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