Simulations Help JetBlue Improve Operational Coordination

Chip Heath and Dan Health, co-authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, say that mapping and simulating processes in advance can help organizations identify hidden procedural flaws, fix them, and become better prepared to handle a variety of situations.

At JetBlue, simulations of the company’s response to irregular operations – sudden changes brought on by severe weather or delays in one part of the country – are conducted so that teams can test their comfort with working together to respond to a fast-moving situation. At the first such simulation, Bonny Simi, the company’s director of customer experience and analysis, brought staff together from across the company and gave them a sample situation:

As the centerpiece of the first irregular operations retreat, Simi announced to the group: “Tomorrow, there’s going to be a thunderstorm at JFK such that we’re going to have to cancel 40 flights.” The group then had to map out their response to the crisis.

Having a process in place is important, but testing that process can mean the difference between a successful or failed response when that process is put into action. Here’s how testing helped JetBlue improve its process for irregular operations:

As they rehearsed what they would do, step by step, they began to spot problems in their current process. For instance, in severe-weather situations, protocol dictates that the manager on duty, the Captain Kirk of JetBlue operations, should distribute to the staff what’s known as a “precancel list,” which identifies the flights that have been targeted for cancellation. There were five different people who rotated through the Kirk role, and they each sent out the precancel list in a different format. This variability created a small but real risk.

In total, the group identified more than 1,000 process flaws, small and large. Over the next few weeks, the group successively filtered and prioritized the list down to a core set of 85 problems to address. Most of them were small individually, but together, they dramatically increased the risk of a dropped baton. JetBlue’s irregular-operations strike force spent nine months in intense and sometimes emotional sessions, working together to stamp out the problems.

How did this project affect JetBlue’s financial and operational performance measures?

The effort paid off. In the summer of 2009, JetBlue had its best-ever on-time summer. Year over year, JetBlue’s refunds decreased by $9 million. Best of all, the efforts dramatically improved JetBlue’s “recovery time” from major events such as storms. (JetBlue considers itself recovered from an irregular-operations event when 98.5% of scheduled flights are a go.) The group shaved recovery time by 40% — from two-and-a-half days to one-and-a-half days.

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