A long days’ journey into Azerbaijan

On his return trip from a recent trade show in Bangalore, India, editor Bob Vavra's flight took a couple of unexpected turns, increasing what was already an 18-hour flight to a two-day affair. While not a harrowing experience by any means, the trip afforded some object lessons that, when applied to manufacturing, are definitely food for thought.

By Bob Vavra, Editor January 1, 2009

The long, strange trip from Bangalore, India to Chicago takes 18 hours in the air and a couple more on the ground transitioning from plane to plane and gate to gate. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

If everything worked the way it was supposed to, you’d have little need for tutorials or training or maybe even your favorite manufacturing magazine. In the recognition that some things go wrong sometimes comes the desire by the best manufacturers to make sure things go better the next time.

Which wasn’t my first thought when the pilot of our British Airways flight came on the intercom to tell us we’d be landing shortly to deplane a Norwegian passenger who had developed a life-threatening condition. So 30 minutes later, we were landing at a one-runway airport in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the western edge of the Caspian Sea.

What initially went wrong was one of those things no one predicts. What followed were some object lessons for manufacturers on ways to overcome those things you can’t predict, and to better predict the things that might come up as a result.

For example, there was no one at the Baku airport who knew how to fuel a Boeing 747 jet. Which brings us to Lesson #1: Cross-train your staff. In these tight times, it’s important to get as much as you can out of your talent. If staff sizes are strained, you have to make sure that everyone is versatile. Had someone at Baku been cross-training on the care and fueling of the 747, we might have gotten out of there a couple hours earlier.

And then the pilot and purser had to leave the plane to go pay for the fuel. Really. Lesson #2: Work with your suppliers and make them partners in your organization. Baku is clearly not on British Airways’ normal routes, but you’d have thought someone would have called someone to say, “Send me an invoice and I’ll pay it right away.”

After the paperwork and payment and such were completed, we roared down the runway and were back in the air to London. And we might have gotten there in time to make the connecting flight to Chicago, except that the delay in Baku had pushed the British Airways flight crew past its allotted flying time for the day. So we headed for Frankfurt, and another three hours on the ground. The problems kept going downhill, but the solution should have been clear to someone before we got to Frankfurt.

Lesson #3 is one I’ve mentioned before: whether you practice predictive or preventive maintenance, either is better than break-fix. If stopping in Frankfurt couldn’t have been prevented, it could have been predicted, and a new flight crew could have been waiting for us on the ground when our plane touched down in Germany. Instead, we waited again.

Once we got into Heathrow, what followed was fairly remarkable, especially from a customer service standpoint. British Airways secured us a room at a nice hotel with a hot meal waiting for us, complimentary breakfast the next morning, a shuttle bus back to the airport, a ditty bag with toiletries in case and an automatic rebooking on the next available flight out of town.

Lesson #4 often gets overlooked: If you screw up in front of a customer, don’t screw up further by looking for excuses. All our needs were taken care of promptly and without having to ask for anything. It was an expensive mistake, but cost wasn’t the factor.

The next morning broke foggy and gray in London. No one seemed surprised. By mid-afternoon, we were airborne again and heading home. The Boeing 777, like the flight on the 747, was smooth and crisp and painless. The trip took a lot longer because we were flying into a 75 mph headwind, but you’d never have known it inside the plane, which didn’t move an inch off dead level for eight hours.

Which brings me to the final lesson. It’s one you already know. Lesson #5: great engineering and great operations can smooth out the rough spots. The plane was wonderfully engineered and was being operated beautifully. The customer service on the flight was flawless for everyone. The flight operated the way every manufacturing plant should operate — with an eye toward excellent execution, excellent efficiency and excellent service toward the end user.

Bob Vavra’s blog, Five Fast Things, can be found at www.plantengineering.com