Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lean Airport with Clear Measurement at London Heathrow

The London Heathrow Terminal 5, which cost 4.3 billion pounds to construct, was described to be a "national embarrassment" for the UK due to its chaotic and "mayhem"-like opening on March 27th, 2008. Blames were put on the problematic computer system behind the luggage belts. On the opening day, 34 flights were cancelled, passenger check-in's were suspended, 20,000+ bags were stranded due to the inefficient system, and passengers waited for hours because of it.

Less than one year later, the London Heathrow Terminal 5 is doing very well. Going through the London Heathrow airport recently, I noticed the following sign just past the Terminal 5's security check point, which screamed "lean operations" to me. It measures and reports on the terminal's various wait time, service availability, overall ease and accuracy, as well as cleanliness.

In particular, the measurement of "Flight information" in the following photo is related to the last article on Maximizing airport runway & boarding gates utilization at London Heathrow, where I talked about the flight information board of gate assignment. It seems like all targets were achieved and some were exceeded. Well done.

Also, the reporting on "Security waiting time for transfer passengers" reminded me of a project done in 2003 by the Centre for Operations Excellence at the Sauder School of Business in the University of British Columbia with the Vancouver International Airport (YVR). The project team created a simulation model to form optimal staffing requirement for the security check point to meet the target of "90% of customers pass through the security check point in 10 minutes or less".

I guess when people pay attention, things can be done properly. "The general consensus at the moment is that Terminal Five has put its initial problems firmly behind it. British Airways believes that the terminal now provides the 'best customer experience Heathrow has known' for several years. Furthermore, the airline holds frequent meetings with BAA in order to review the airport’s performance." (source: Heathrow Airport Guide)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maximizing airport runway & boarding gates utilization at London Heathrow

Have you transferred at or departed from the London Heathrow airport lately? Did you notice how the boarding gates remain unassigned until approximately 40 minutes before departure for the inter-European flights?  See picture below. I noticed them doing this at least 2 years ago, but now as an Operational Research professional, I can appreciate some of the intuition behind it.
It allows the runway and boarding gate planners a lot of flexibility so that if a flight is late, the planner can easily swap gates and runways if needed with minimum communication to the parties involved. In terms of communication, it is less hassle and less mistake-prone. In terms of an optimization problem, this flexibility means fewer constraints, and therefore better solutions potentially.

Interesting note: see how there are 4 flights scheduled at 19:05 for departure? My flight was the 19:05 to Prague, and I was able to see that there were basically 2 runways for the group of gates in my area, and several planes (about 4) were lined up like ducks in a row waiting for their turns to take off one by one. However, the individual take off is quite fast. Therefore, even though the 19:05 departure time is somewhat approximate for the 4 flights, my flight to Prague certainly arrived on time nonetheless.

As a passenger, it was slightly annoying that when I arrived at Heathrow, I did not know which gate to sit at to wait for my departing flight. However, I was quickly assured that this would not be a problem, because another information board tells me how long it would take to get from where I am to another gate, so I did not need to worry about being late for boarding. See picture below.

I suppose this could also be applied to the domestic flights in other parts of the world, such as the USA and Canada.

ThinkOR's Operational Research traveling tidbits

As previously mentioned, ThinkOR's authors, Aleksey and Dawen, have moved to Europe and are now looking for Operational Research type of jobs in western Europe in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, UK, etc. Aleksey and Dawen are now on the road a lot, evaluating potential cities to live and work in, while checking out the local OR employment opportunities. On these trips, you will see notes by us about interesting applications or references to OR topics, such as the 2 articles before by Aleksey:
Look out for more fun articles on operations research tidbits that we encounter on our trips.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Keynesian Economics in 1360?

I recently tripped across this in Prague. Originally built by Emperor Charles IV, this old city wall was built to protect Prague and some of it still stands today. Two local students who were touring us around the city told me that Charles IV had it commissioned in order to provide work for Prague's people who were suffering from a famine at the time. "Keynesian Economics!" I said.

I found this interesting in a time where the media, public opinion, and politicians suddenly all seem to believe and support Keynesian Economics completely.

Unfortunately the Prague city website reports that this is all a myth and that the wall was already under construction when the famine struck. This cannot be called stimulus money after all. For anyone who has been following the recent stimulus efforts, you could say that this wall was "shovel-ready."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lean Prison Management

Two weeks ago, Dawen and I were in San Francisco. A mandatory tourist stop is the Alcatraz tour/cruise. Despite the poor weather, we elected to take the cruise and enjoyed an interesting visit to the island, including the award winning audio tour. While on this tour, we noticed an application of the lean principle of poka-yoke or mistakeproofing.

Alcatraz was a super-ultra-max security prison lasting 29 years from 1934 to 1963. High profile and extremely dangerous prisoners were sent here and security was tight. Guns and knives, naturally, were kept secure, but food still had to be prepared in the kitchen. Thus was born the knife board. This was a piece of wood in which each knife had it's shape cut out as a home so that it could be easily determined if a knife was missing.

Lean or Lean manufacturing has an interesting relationship with Operations Research. While Lean is not a component of Operations Research, many of the same principles are at play in its execution. They also typically share the same goals and the same field of play. Lean approaches can be excellent tools for implementing changes recommended by OR analyses. The focus of Lean is the elimination of wasted time and resources in business processes. The key to lean is the grass-roots approach it takes, involving process owners and front-line workers in the problem identification, and solution process.

The audio tour is a largely solitary endeavour, so we did not discuss it immediately. Being the sort of people that we are, though, Dawen and I both noticed this and spoke with each other about it immediately afterwards. It would be interesting to look for more applications of Lean to prison management. Perhaps one that minimizes inventory?