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  • Rod Morgan, Head of Faculty at RPM-Academy

Navigating Turbulence: The Imperative of Robust Process Design in the Aviation Industry

In the ever-evolving realm of aviation, the challenges faced by airlines worldwide are as diverse as the destinations they connect. From fluctuating passenger volumes to unpredictable weather patterns and the relentless pulse of competition, the aviation industry is a complex ecosystem where success hinges on meticulous planning and adaptability.

While the mantra of continuous improvement is heralded as a cornerstone for organizational success, it is crucial to acknowledge that it alone is not a silver bullet. Instead, the linchpin for sustained operational excellence lies in robust process design.

Commercial Aviation is a High Stakes Game

A set of dice

The aviation industry is a high-stakes game, where even minor disruptions can have cascading effects on operations. Peaks and valleys in passenger demand, sudden weather changes, and unexpected equipment failures are inherent risks that demand a proactive approach. Enter robust process design, a strategic framework that ensures a resilient foundation for an airline's operations.

Continuous improvement initiatives are undoubtedly valuable in refining existing processes, but they fall short if the underlying design lacks strength. Think of it as building a house on shaky ground—no amount of interior decoration can compensate for a weak foundation. In the context of aviation, robust process design involves anticipating and mitigating risks through process design and quality tools like process flow mapping and failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA).

Process flow map with FMEA
Process map and FMEA

Process flow mapping allows airlines to visualize and comprehend the intricacies of their operations. By breaking down each step in the journey from check-in to disembarkation, potential bottlenecks and vulnerabilities become apparent. This insight is invaluable, as it forms the basis for creating contingency plans that can be activated in response to unexpected challenges.

On the other hand, FMEA is a systematic method for evaluating processes to identify potential failure modes and their consequences. By scrutinizing every component of an operation, from boarding procedures to maintenance routines, airlines can proactively address vulnerabilities before they manifest into operational disruptions.

To Batch or Not to Batch… That is the Question

The practice of batching in commercial airline travel, evident everywhere in airport and airline operations, introduces a cascade of effects that significantly influence passenger flow and overall experience.

As airlines strive to optimize seat mile costs by consolidating passengers into larger airplanes, queues inevitably form at various touchpoints within the airport. The amalgamation of travelers into large groups creates congestion, leading to prolonged waiting times and increased stress for passengers. Queues at check-in counters, security checkpoints, and boarding gates become unavoidable bottlenecks, adversely impacting the perceived efficiency and comfort of air travel.

Moreover, the domino effect of batching can disrupt the punctuality of flights, causing delays and further exacerbating passenger dissatisfaction. Balancing the cost-efficiency goals of batching with the imperative to enhance the passenger experience requires innovative solutions that prioritize streamlined processes, advanced technologies, and a reimagining of the traditional queuing model to ensure that air travel remains both cost-effective and passenger-friendly.

In the Lean world, single piece continuous flow with the elimination of batching or, at the least, dramatic reduction in batching and lot size is a design imperative. How does one reconcile this fundamental “flow” principle with the airports and airlines of today?

Digital Twins and Robust Design

A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical object, person, or process, contextualized in a digital version of its environment, enabling an organization to simulate real situations and their outcomes, ultimately allowing it to make better decisions as well as testing and designing adequately robust processes and systems. Airlines, airports, and healthcare are examples of industries that should be investing in digital twin capability today and into the future.

Airport Digital twin
Airport Digital Twin

Robust Design and Continuous Improvement

While continuous improvement seeks to enhance efficiency incrementally, robust process design addresses the core structure of an airline's operations. It's about fortifying the infrastructure to weather the storms, both figurative and literal, that the industry throws its way.

In the quest for operational excellence, airlines must strike a balance between the pursuit of continuous improvement and the establishment of robust processes. It's not an either-or scenario; rather, it's a symbiotic relationship. Continuous improvement initiatives refine processes iteratively, while robust design ensures that these processes are inherently resilient.

As we navigate the skies of the future, airlines should heed the following advice for achieving true operational excellence:

Invest in Comprehensive Process Mapping: Understand your operations inside out. Map every process, from customer interactions to behind-the-scenes logistics. This clarity is foundational for effective risk management.

Conduct Regular FMEA Workshops: Gather cross-functional teams to analyze potential failure modes and their effects. Prioritize and address these vulnerabilities systematically, ensuring that preventive measures are in place.

Embrace Technological Innovations: Leverage technology to enhance both continuous improvement and process design. Automation, data analytics, digital twins, and artificial intelligence can provide real-time insights and facilitate quicker, more informed decision-making.

Foster a Culture of Adaptability: Equip your teams with the mindset and tools to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. Flexibility is a key attribute in an industry where no two days are alike.


The road to operational excellence in the aviation industry is paved with a dual commitment to continuous improvement and robust process design. The former refines, while the latter fortifies. By embracing both, airlines can soar confidently into the future, prepared to navigate the complexities that lie ahead thereby paving the way for sustained success and resilience in the face of change.

If you would like to explore further the concepts, principles, tools, and methods identified in this article or to learn more about Lean and continuous improvement, please consider signing up for a free account at RPM-Academy Online where you will be able to explore a library of over 800 online courses and more than 90 certificate programs.

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