The Value of a Realistic Dry Run

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opened last week in chaos:

It was 20 years in the planning, cost £4.3bn to build and its staff underwent six months’ training before it opened.

But none of that could prevent Heathrow Terminal 5 from descending into chaos on its opening day yesterday after the baggage system collapsed.

It’s always the baggage system, isn’t it? Denver’s new airport went through the same kind of issues when it opened over 10 years ago. Who could have predicted that Terminal 5 might have baggage handling problems? Apparently not the airport executives at Heathrow.

Look at what the article cited as the major issues:

  • Baggage handlers’ IDs were not recognised by computers and they were not able to log on to the handling system, resulting in the three flights taking off without bags
  • The handlers also could not get where they were supposed to go because they could not get into the car parks or get security clearance
  • Amid confusion over the layout of the new terminal, bag handling teams were unable to make good the delays, which left passengers in arrivals while their bags waited on planes
  • Problems were exacerbated by a lack of the baggage storage bins that are loaded on to planes. Carousels loading luggage also broke down
  • By the afternoon, the already crammed system became overloaded and a ban on checking-in luggage was issued
  • Delays in loading and unloading planes led to delays in departures and arrivals, forcing BA to cancel 34 flights to ensure that its jets start in the right positions to run a normal timetable today

The first four caused the effects described in the last two, none of which had anything to do with the baggage handling technology (that was Denver’s problem). A few dry runs of the facility under close to expected conditions would have easily revealed those issues. While individual staff were given significant training, according to the article, the results show that the system of the terminal as a transportation hub was not fully tested.

A full dry run would include all the staff, equipment, and passengers/baggage they anticipate handling. This is expensive but don’t you think the people in charge would happily pay for it now if they could back?

Here are a few things you can do to prevent this same kind of catastrophe striking your next major launch:

  • Map out the steps of your launch and identify spots where significant problems are most likely to occur. Look at factors both within and outside your own control.
  • Modify your plan to prevent those problems from occurring, if possible.
  • If they cannot be eliminated, identify how you will contingently resolve a problem if it does occur.
  • Test your plan via realistic dry runs to validate your assumptions and surface unanticipated issues.

No one’s perfect but we can all do a lot to eliminate potential risks with a little forethought and testing.

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