Trinidad - Management Skills, by Bill Smith (1965)

It was late afternoon. The temperature was competing with the humidity at about 95 degrees when I went out to see my very first flight in Trinidad, West Indies. I was resplendent in my new uniform, my crisp white shirt, neatly pleated navy blue trousers and stiff blue cap. The sun sparkled on the gold of the three brand new stripes on my epaulettes.

The Boeing 707 was majestic as the hot air from her whining engines made the rich green hills surrounding Piarco Airport shimmer. With an almost satisfied sigh the engines wound down and her gleaming frame came to rest. I strode out to meet her at an appropriately brisk military pace and reached the end of her wing before I noticed - I was alone.

The cavalcade of steps, baggage trolleys, air-conditioners, catering vans and fuel trucks that were supposed to greet the arriving plane had not moved. I turned and signalled to the steps to approach - they did not move. By the time I located the local duty officer and had him order the steps and air-conditioners in place we had a very hot, sweaty and angry horde of passengers and crew to deal with.

Our flights were handled by BWIA (British West Indian Airlines) and they had never before had a BOAC representative at the airport. The local duty officer had assumed I would take over control of BOAC flights, the porters and drivers had no idea who I was, they probably thought I was a flight crew member - it was my first day at the airport - and so they did not heed my signals. In addition they never took responsibility themselves for moving to the aircraft - they always waited for a signal from the duty officer.

Such was my introduction to a host of similar problems of misunderstandings, differences in expectations, problems of personality, politics, and cultural differences - all the problems of getting things done through others, amplified by working in a different culture.

Nothing in my two years of management training had prepared me for this. I had been sent to Trinidad because, at that time, it was the worst performing airport out of some 80 agency handled stations. Trinidad had just become independent from Britain and the national airline BWIA was similarly asserting its independence from its maternal creator BOAC. The multi-racial management and staff of BWIA were not about to pay too much attention to this 24-year old fresh-faced graduate from England.

I still find myself re-living some of those early experiences in the light of more recent learning. One of my major successes was also a sign of a major failure. As you read this you might ask yourself whether you have had a similar experience early in your career and how have your explanations changed over time.

It was not long before I discovered that at least 75% of our delays came from the passenger handling system - checking in passengers, assigning seats, boarding passengers and completing customs and immigration documents. There was a huge bottleneck in the system.

The basic document for recording passenger information was called the passenger manifest. The manifest was typed up at the check-in desk as each passenger reported in. Until the last passenger arrived, the seat plan, flight documentation, fuel calculation, load and balance calculations, customs and immigration clearances could not be processed. Once the last passenger checked in, there was always a chaotic hustle to complete the procedures. The haste, as much as anything, caused problems that led to delays - miscalculations and errors in documentation, missed signatures and erroneous passenger counts.

As I had received some industrial engineering as part of my training I was able to analyse the flow of the system and come up with several designs for eliminating 95% of our delays. The revised system we adopted worked by pre-manifesting passengers and circulating the pre-manifest with an estimated number of passengers to all departments. When the last passenger checked in, it was only the adjustments that had to be communicated. Similarly, once passengers started to board, control of the flight and its documentation was moved from the check-in counter to the boarding gate at a ramp close to the aircraft. The shift of control-point saved an average of ten minutes scurrying time on each flight. The system was hugely successful and virtually eliminated passenger handling delays.

However, one day, after the system had been in use for several weeks, a woman who was one of the senior traffic assistants came on duty. Under the old system, the most senior women were given the task of manifesting passengers, because of their typing skills and because of the critical nature of the manifest to the passenger handling system.

When she arrived at her position and saw the pre-manifest with passengers’ names already on it she exclaimed, “What is this? This is no good - the old way is much more accurate”. She proceeded to tear it up and returned to the old way. Naturally, I was furious and let her know in no uncertain terms how the whole new system depended on the pre-manifest.

She seemed unduly calm, and other local staff who had been very positive about the results of the new system seemed reluctant to intervene. A week or so later, I was asked to the office of my own area manager and he presented me with a complaint about my handling of the incident from the local station manager.

Although I was able to explain the incident I had a sense that something more than this single event was operating. It took several months before I fully understood what had happened. I had spent so much time focusing on the task of improving passenger service that I had been totally unaware about my effect on people.

In particular, I had been unaware of my effect on the local station manager. I had been training his staff and the staff had come to regard me a source of knowledge; they would come to me when they had technical problems. I had been changing his systems. Every time he would come to the duty office and see something different he would ask, “What is happening here?" The staff would reply – “Oh, Mr. Smith says we should do this now”. Wherever he turned his head “Mr. Smith says... Mr. Smith won't allow us to.... Mr. Smith believes that...”

He had begun to feel a stranger in his own station. It wasn't long before he found a way to remind this youngster that Piarco Airport was his world and I had better start realising that. He had no need to tell the senior check-in agent what to do. She knew how he felt and she delivered the lesson I have never forgotten.

At various stages in my learning about organisation and management I have attached different interpretations to this story, from informal and formal human relations, to socio-technical systems design, to power politics, personality and culture. For me it was one of those critical incidents that shape the future in profound and subtle ways.

I continued for some three years in Trinidad, making just about every mistake it is possible for a neophyte to make. Perhaps, with hindsight, the major error I made was to take too much personal responsibility for performance. Even though my major intervention was to train staff in aircraft handling, I still took responsibility for improving the systems and procedure. I would work for several months to improve passenger handling systems and our delays due to passenger handling would fall considerably, I would then move on to cargo handling and again delays and complaints would decrease.

But, as you might guess, delays and complaints in passenger handling began to creep back again. For some three years I continued this merry-go-round from department to department watching performance improve and then fall back. It is only recently, since I have seen how often this error is repeated by many of my colleagues in management, that I have begun to realise the cultural roots of the problem. I only really came to grips with it some time later in Rome.*

* see Bill's description of his time in Rome in the chapter on Europe

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