Here's the aside: I studied systems analysis in grad school and I loved it. It brings powerful set of tools to teamwork jobs. Making and fixing systems can do great things. But compared to the value of good people, it's still nothing.
People make systems work. My run through Heathrow airport in Great Britain was an example. At the airport, it was the staff, not the system designed by high level functionaries and consultants, who handed us off from team to team, from place to place. Those staff realized from the start that my group had forty minutes to catch our connecting flight and we weren't going to make it.
That is, we couldn't make it unless the staff adjusted the system to ensure we got on.
“These four,” said a medium-height black woman in a smart blue Heathrow uniform as we exited the plane.
She used the walkie-talkie in her hand to point from us to the next person with an airport uniform. I concentrated on keeping up with the group. Meanwhile, without me thinking about much more than following directions, the next staff member moved us to the front of a line. I obeyed.
The next woman sent us through an exit queue. We dashed from there to what seemed to be our gate. We waited in line there. Someone in an airport uniform marched up. He seemed to recognize us. He pulled aside a guard rope.
"This way," he said as he moved us off to one side.
We passed through a documents check, walked more, and passed into a security queue. Jenn and Diane, since they were alert, adapted themselves to the new security procedure.
"You can't have liquids in that bag. They have to be in this," said one of the inspectors.
Jenn and Diane moved things in and out of bags in the way prescribed by our host country. The bags passed the checks. The security crew pulled Norm and I aside for extra checking. Their equipment broke down on me. The staff seemed to expect it end switched to hand scanning. They were fast. We re-gathered ourselves and headed for customs.
At customs, we waited in another queue. A staff member walked up. He identified us and created a new customs queue for us. We moved almost to the front of that line. After getting our passports stamped, we ran to another line.
This time, I noticed an airport staff member walking part of the way with us. That person disappeared. Another greeted us at the next checkpoint, the British Airways flight desk. The flight had closed. The staff rushed us through regardless so we could catch up to the back of the line of boarding passengers.
"You've still got time," the woman at the desk said.
That is precisely when the system pulled me aside specifically, of course. It had flagged my name. Even then, the staff kept an eye on the flight departure time. They had to check my papers because the system mandated it. They went through their standard procedures. But they had no intention of making me miss the flight.
"Don't worry," one man said as he looked through my documentation. "We'll get you through this."
All along the steps of a terrible system, the Heathrow staff took extra care to make their system work. They really did speed us through. That could lead someone at the top of their airport infrastructure to think that it was reasonably well designed process instead of incompetent one. But the good airport staff make the originally-bad system work just well enough.
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