Spare No Expense? – When spending more money actually decreases performance

Can you tell where the risk is in this picture?

I realize for some, any discussion of performance in the Safety and Security arenas may feel like touching the “third rail” in your business and process improvement portfolio. In fact, that may be exactly what it is.

Let’s be frank. We are all certainly appreciative of those who serve on the front line of keeping us safe and secure, and are certainly indebted to those who continue to deter or prevent efforts to harm us on the home front, particularly since 911. But as of late, it feels as if this “protective layer” of our society has taken on a life of its own. Safety and Security efforts, whether in public service or private enterprise, now appear largely “exempt” from the type of investment diligence or performance scrutiny that almost every other business process or function routinely endures.

No place is this more apparent than in the area of air travel. If you travel like me, week in and week out, you try to view the security around you as a “necessary inconvenience”, and if you’re lucky, sometimes you can make it fade into the background as more or less “white noise”. But at other times, it becomes almost unbearable, and makes you question whether we have gone too far and perhaps blown right past the point of what is rational…or what many would call the point of diminishing returns.

Last week, I traveled to Canada from the East Coast through Denver. From the start of the trip, you see security all around you. It starts with the almost inconspicuous. The handful of security officers outside the drop-off zone who essentially keep vehicles from getting too close to the airport for any length of time for the obvious reasons. Then there are the few security faces patrolling the ticketing area, although I see fewer and fewer of these of late. The real security doesn’t really begin until you enter the always crowded baggage screening area. And it begins in a BIG way. At any busy airport, there are multiple layers that emerge at this point of the process:

  • First there are those who guide you into the security line and make sure you have a boarding pass
  • Then there are the TSA ID Checkers (For lack of a better term.)- the ones that make sure you have a boarding pass and validate it with your ID or passport
  • Of course, there are those who tell you what screening lane to go to
  • …and those who guide your bag onto the belt and make sure things get into screener’s “black box”
  • There are those folks who apparently manage the “inventory” of the plastic containers that carry the laptops and other loose items over the screening belt
  • …and the agents who guide the passenger through the metal detector or body scan (the red light/ green light dude)
  • Occasionally, there is the added service of the person who guides you out of the metal detector/ body scan and toward your belongings (in case you forgot whether your conveyor was the one on the right or the left)
  • There are the screeners themselves (the ones behind the TV monitors, and in the case of the body scanners, somewhere behind closed doors)
  • …and those who make sure the items come out of their “black box” and keep the flow moving
  • There are those who collect the plastic bins so they can recycled and brought back to other end per the instruction of person #5 above
  • There supervisors at the end of the chain, who are always “at the ready” to handle any problems that may arise
  • …and of course, all of the other stuff we don’t see (People behind the scenes monitoring cameras, immigration and customs agents, people reading the body scanners, et al.)

Perhaps my sarcasm is bleeding out of the above list. But it’s not because I don’t value the job these people do. It’s because I have serious doubt in three things. 1) That we are investing in the right areas (proportionally)…steering resources to the the areas that have the biggest threat potential 2) That the investment in each area is commensurate with the risk (which conventionally is defined as the product of probability and consequence), and 3) that the overall processes are as efficient and effective as possible.

My take is that we haven’t really asked these tough questions largely because the areas of safety and security have been viewed like “blank checks” to most since 911. To answer the question, is to put ourselves dangerously close to assigning probabilities and price tags to human lives. So we kind of “exempt” these areas from the whole performance debate. We don’t challenge the investment. We don’t challenge the efficiency of the process. And we certainly don’t subject the outcomes or value produced by these investments to any real scrutiny. In my view, its very much how we treat the performance of educators and teachers in our public schools. The process is simply “too important” to subject it to the pains of proactively measuring and managing real performance accountability.

So back to airline security for a minute…

  • ARE WE FOCUSING OUR RESOURCES APPROPRIATELY? If so, why are nearly all of our visible security resources located “behind” the security entrance? In Denver, I encountered 59 (yes I actually counted them) visible security personnel from the time i walked in the door to the time i boarded the plane–53 of whom were located inside the screening area itself.I know I am not the first person to draw this conclusion, but if you were trying to inflict harm and terror on a large group of people, you would probably do so BEFORE you got caught up in the first layer of security (i.e. in the line itself amidst the biggest crowd). But that is not where their focus is.
    The majority of the 8.1 Billion dollars we spent in airline/ airport security in 2009 was focused on the 50,000+ TSA agents ( and the associated technology and equipment) that are situated INSIDE the boundaries of the screening area itself. Ergo- The nature of last week’s attack in Moscow should not have been a surprise at all.

TSA Agents at work

  • ARE OUR PROCESSES AS EFFICIENT AND EFFECTIVE AS THEY COULD BE? This one is easy. NO. Not even close. Those who defend the process sometimes steer the argument to “the deterrent value” that is achieved by the physical presence and show of force the TSA provides. Perhaps a little, but their argument falls apart quickly. To any reasonably educated person, the process on the surface simply LOOKS chaotic, uncoordinated and misguided. Anyone who has thought about this in a challenging way could probably tell you the top 10 ways they would beat the system. Instead, we spend over $8 Billion on a process that could very likely be pierced in a heartbeat. In my view, this is because we layer new processes on top of bad ones…never reverting back to the underlying value that each component activity or task contributes to the desired outcome. And this doesn’t stop with TSA. Look at Customs and Immigration and you’ll see the same thing. Last week I sat on a plane at the gate for 40 minutes in Denver (after landing almost an hour early) because of a new regulation that required passengers entering the US to remain on the aircraft until they were within 10 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. I’m no immigration expert, but its hard for me to conceive of a risk that warrants this type of policy guideline (I’m all ears if there is one!). Another example is the safety briefing on the aircraft itself. Other than the 15 or so references aimed at blackberry and ipad users (which is a whole separate debate in and of itself) , nothing materially has changed with this briefing in over four decades. We just keep “layering on” without ever pruning back. Come on…are there still people out there who don’t know how to buckle a seat belt??? .
  • ARE THE RESOURCES WE SPEND COMMENSURATE WITH THE RISKS WE ARE MITIGATING? This is the real question, isn’t it? But as I said before, answering it begins to place a value on the people and assets your are trying to protect. Again, we spend 8 Billion dollars that we didn’t spend before 2001. And that is really a small fraction of the overall investment, much of which we don’t see visibly. And since much of that is reactive strategies and tactics (dealing with the causes of events that have already happened), it is not likely to deter or prevent the NEXT real threat… be it mail rooms, baggage collection areas, biological attacks, railway threats, etc. Next time you travel (whether its by air, or just to the mall to buy something), look around you and ask yourself how much investment is being made in the spirit of “protecting” you, and then try and ask yourself how much of it really adds value. I continue to be amazed how much of it could be pruned back with little impact on the end result. The cost of getting to the “zero defect” solution- which is most likely not achievable anyway- would be enormous and would suck the lifeblood out of any industry trying to survive in the economic climate. (I’m reminded of Ralph Nader’s discussions of smoke hoods and air bags being mandated by the airlines (the latter is actually in testing as we speak!)). Simply speaking the “safety and security” has ostensibly given us a license to not challenge these investments and view the money pit as bottomless.

While I’d like to think all of this is just impacting the airline industry and travel community, most of us know that is far from accurate. Many of us can see this in our day to day lives. I am reminded of this every time I enter a client’s office building and see 2-3 guards at the guard desk badging and signing in visitors (a process that in its traditional application is of marginal value to begin with, and is often bypassed altogether by the people it is designed to protect!). And for most businesses, that is just the visible part of the process. There are the 24/7 parking lot patrols, grounds security, and those in the policy and admin part of the process; NOT to mention all of the security surrounding corporate and IT systems risks which often dwarf what we see on the surface.

Then there are the “first responder” type functions we all have in our local communities, which REALLY IS the “third rail” if there is one , and one that I would be best served to avoid (but not just yet). Take a State like New Jersey where we have literally dozens and dozens of small towns (some as small as 3-5 square miles in geography), each of whom have their own Police, Fire and EMS departments and management infrastructure. Layer on top of that the often restrictive policy and union guidelines (one of which actually requires sending two EMS units to every 911 call), and you have a recipe for gross ineffficiency, runaway budgets and little prayer of any future tax cuts.

The list clearly continues, and there is no shortage of examples like this. And while only a few of you may be directly associated with the management of safety and security functions in your organizations, all of us are in a position to initiate this debate, and perhaps even influence it.

The steps we need to take are not that different from what we would take in any business process. They revolve around the questions I’ve posed above: Are the investments commensurate with the outcomes we want to achieve? Are we effectively deploying these investments in the right areas? Are our processes efficient and effective? Does each activity make a contribution to value?

A simple start would be to begin measuring the function like we do many other business processes. Some benchmarking certainly wouldn’t hurt. But most importantly, look inside the the process itself with an eye toward the forensics. Begin by establishing a linkage between every activity and the outcome and value it produces. Without that, the layering of bad process on top of bad process will no doubt continue.

Its not rocket science. But we must start by bringing these area into focus and increasing the transparency of the issues. Continuing to exempt them from the debate will only delay the improvement that we all know is possible.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at


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  1. #1 by Redge on March 22, 2011 - 8:45 pm

    I agree that we have exhausted billions of dollars and have little to show for it (at least that we’re aware of). How many “potential threats” have been halted as a result of the added security? We are reacting – not preventing – as though lightning will strike the same way twice.

    Sadly, any of the potentially explosive liquids and items are collected into a barrel and remain on site at the airport. We assume the threat is on the plane itself. I suggest this is a gross oversight. What about the airport itself?

    I am as concerned that we have spent billions on the “obvious, after-the-fact” tactics. I understand Israel uses a multi-tiered screening process that may even begin before you even arrive at the airport itself! They haven’t had an incident – ever that I’m aware of.

    We are no more secure now than ever.

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