How not to execute a policy change

In a previous life I worked as ground staff at a regional New Zealand airport. The following example consists of a poorly designed system that ultimately encouraged staff violation in order to complete work when expected.

The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and subsequent amendments legislate the requirement to take “all practicable steps” to ensure workplace safety. In an effort to reduce back injuries amongst staff, an automated baggage delivery system was set up which had the intention of ensuring frontline customer service staff no longer had to ever lift bags (in fact, it was prohibited). Passengers dropped there bags on a conveyer belt which also acted as a scale and the belt would move the bag onto another belt which would carry it away to be loaded in the aircraft. The portion of conveyer belt back of house however was very short and as soon as a bag reached the end of the belt it would trigger a sensor that would stop all the belts to prevent bags pilling up on the floor. This created the situation where frontline staff could not clear their own belts/scales so could not continue checking in any further passengers. Despite this being identified as an issue early on, management continued with the line “it will be fine and frontline staff must not lift bags.” The baggage contractor was asked to have a staff member by the back of house conveyer belt to ensure it was regularly cleared and therefore would hopefully prevent the above issue. This however solved nothing. The baggage contactor was paid a small set rate per aircraft movement and simply could not afford the staff to have one dedicated by the baggage belt without compromising the other duties expected of them. Again management continued wit the line “it will be fine.”

The airline industry is time sensitive; delays are not acceptable and had to be fully accounted for. The expectation is X number of staff can check-in X number of passengers in a given time to ensure an on time departure. With this efficiency pushed, staff realised that in order to continue with the required check-in rate, when the baggage belt became blocked, future bags could be lifted off (the violation against company policy) and placed/stacked behind them in the area of the check-in counter and then placed back onto the conveyer belts once blockages had been cleared. This solution, which by forcing staff to lifts bags, defeated the entire purpose of the automated system, continued for sometime and as flights were leaving on time, required efficiency was being meet.

A further complication came when a Health and Safety Manager from head office came to view the new system in action and was horrified to see staff lifting bags and violating policy. The local manager felt he looked like a fool but this was the same person who kept with the line “it will be fine” and yet still expected on time departures. A solution was eventually reached which saw the portion of belt in the loading area expanded substantially allowing a much larger number of bags on the belt before one would reach the end a trigger the stop sensor.

The goal set by introducing the above system was a zero rate of injuries to customer service staff involving baggage issues by virtue of staff not having to physically handle baggage. Perezgonzalez (2007) says managers “need to monitor that the goals that you are setting are indeed being followed by the performers and producing the expected results in the system.” In the above case they were not. Even with management informed of the issues around the system which should have seen goals or strategy around the implementation of those goals revisited (Perezgonzalez, 2007).

Perezgonzalez (2007) also writes of the need to strike a balance between productivity and Health and Safety. In this case, the need to maintain productivity seemingly outweighed the desired change to Health and Safety as illustrated by management’s decree that the new system was fine but on time performance must be maintained (a key KPI in the industry). Although no injuries resulted from the defective system, there existed the chance of just such an event occurring. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions show New Zealand has having a relatively low Uncertainty Avoidance score. In my opinion, this is just such an example where Kiwi’s are prepared to ‘think outside the box’ or go against standard procedures if they feel it is appropriate to complete the job ("Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions," 2009).

The opportunity was available much earlier to correct the system or alter goals but this was not acted upon until observed by the senior manager from head office. A more decisive and open local manager would have listened to staff concerns much earlier and tried to put in place updated procedures to counter the unexpected variables as opposed to maintaining the expectation of having (at times) two mutually exclusive goals.

1. Geert Hofstede cultural dimensions. (2009). Retrived September 4, 2011 from
2. Perezgonzalez, J.D. (2007). Advanced Aviation Human Factors. School of Aviation, Massey Univeristy, New Zealand.

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