13 years, 6 months ago

Where is the information when we need it?

Link: http://weblog.tomgraves.org/index.php/2010/12/26/where-is-the-info/

We boarded the plane, settled down in our seats, to await pushback from the gate – the usual ‘hurry up and wait’ of everyday air-travel. Seemed to take a bit longer than usual, though. Strange clonks and thumps from beneath my seat, down below in the cargo bay. We wait, and we wait.

[I won’t name the airline here: they probably did a better job than most, under the circumstances, and it certainly wasn’t bad enough to blame or shame. In any case, I want to focus on the overall theme here rather than a single incident.]

And we wait. After perhaps twenty minutes past our scheduled departure, a call from the cockpit: there’s a problem with the cargo-door, haven’t been able to fix it, engineers are on their way, apologies for the delay.

Twenty minutes later, with the clunking and clanking still going on below, I’m doing that calculation so common amongst experienced air-travellers: is my connection still possible? I can probably still make it across the terminal, but will my luggage make it too? Another polite apology from the flight-deck, but no actual news. And whatever they say, it’s not looking good.

An hour goes past. Still belted into our seats. Can perhaps just make that connection if we leave now. Another announcement: but it’s not the one I’d been hoping for… “first class and business class passengers can leave the plane and wait in our airline lounge; other passengers please wait here while we serve you a meal”. The meal, when it eventually arrives, consists of, uh, one plastic cup-a-soup. While another hour drifted away into nowhere. Like the flight, which is clearly going nowhere.

Another hour. “All passengers please disembark: please take all your belongings, we’ll call you when you can board again.” As we leave, it’s clear that the first-class and business-class passengers didn’t take their carry-on junk with them when they left earlier: it’s going to be chaos for them if we have to change planes. No information; no warnings about what to do with boarding-cards or the like. Three harassed staff at the gate, trying to field impossible queries in half a dozen different languages; no-one knows in any detail what’s going on, no suggestions on what to do about a myriad of by-now-lost connections other than the all-too-obvious platitudes of “we’ll sort it out later”.

Another hour, spent anxiously around the gate. At least the children are having fun, running up and down on the somewhat bouncy travelator. And then, suddenly, an announcement over the general system: plane’s fixed, please hurry up, we’re boarding now. The usual airline complaints about lost passengers – as if it’s the passengers’ fault that there’s a delay. No time to check boarding-cards, it seems – and a fair few passengers have left them on the plane anyway. But everyone’s in, seemingly on record time: and five hours after scheduled departure, and with somewhat of a struggle to find a slot in the lengthy queue for take-off, we’re finally on our way. Hooray.

A tedious seven hours later, we arrive at the airline’s hub. The only passengers who aren’t going to be affected by the delay are the relatively few who live here, and the fewer still who’d want to stay here: just about every onward connection will have been blown. Still, the airline’s ground-staff will have had almost twelve hours to plan for this: we’ll get it sorted out somehow. We decant from the plane into an almost empty airport, well after midnight, in fairly optimistic mood.

Which doesn’t last long. No plan, no information, no nothing. A chaos of queues at the transit desk. Nothing happens, very slowly. One lucky soul eventually rushes away to catch one momentary slot. The line beside collectively groan when it becomes clear that there’s no possible flight to their destination for at least another day, and so many of them that it might take two or three days at least to find enough slots.

My name is called, followed by those of several others. In some confusion, I make my way forward to the desk – and am angrily challenged by the woman already there, whose name hadn’t been called – how come I’d been picked instead of her? I try to explain that I’m just following instructions, like everyone else, that it’s the airline’s choice, not mine, it’s not something I’ve done to her at all: slowly, slowly, she subsides, still simmering. Turns out that we’d been picked out to catch a flight that we’d already missed anyway. Another woman next to me had been given one of her boarding passes for a connection that now no longer exists. No-one seems to know what’s going on; perhaps least of all the ground-staff who are trying to sort out the mess.

Another hour of tired confusion, frazzled ground-staff, yet tempers still holding fairly well all round. No more connections for anyone today, but they do manage to assign hotels for everyone, with pick-up times and boarding-passes and coaches to take us to bed. At last.

Except the hotel doesn’t know we’re coming: no-one had told the reception-desk, at any rate. It’s gone 4am before we all manage to get that one sorted out and into bed. For a 6am wake-up to call to warn the people waiting for me at the other end that I won’t be there for another full day.

Where, eventually, we do indeed arrive. And my luggage, too. Wow. Amazing. Feels like a real bonus after all that struggle.

Looking back with an enterprise-architect’s eye, what are the lessons-learned here?

The incident itself was ‘just one of those things’: someone had been a bit too rough with the cargo-door, bent something just that bit too much out of shape. All fixed: it just takes time. Except time was what we didn’t have. For which we can’t blame the airline, or the airport, or anyone, really. Just one of those things.

What wasn’t good was the availability or use of information. The ground-staff where we started didn’t know what was going on. Which was why the passengers didn’t know what was going on. Which was why no-one could make any alternate plans, beyond perhaps passing on a warning to others further down the line. The screw-up over the non-’meal’ was just a minor annoyance, really: a few people kicked up a minor fuss, but there wasn’t much point – because if everything’s run on a just-in-time model, there ain’t much redundancy anywhere in the system to cover anything like that.

Beyond the departure itself, the use of available information seemed even worse. The ground-staff at the hub should have known we were going to be late, and that connections would have been lost: they should, at the very least, had had the whole of our flight-time – seven hours or so – to prepare for alternatives. But amazingly, no-one seems to have had thought fit to warn them. Hence a lot of chaotic make-it-up-on-the-spot – not just for the passengers, but for all their separate checked-baggage too. Not the ground-staff’s fault, really, that so much of it was such a mess – they did remarkably well, under the circumstances. Likewise the hotel-staff, when we all arrived in the middle of the night, apparently without warning. But none of that chaos should have happened at all – if the airline and others had made proper use of their information. Which they didn’t. Which to me, frankly, seems bizarre – but there ’tis…

Yet all of this was just one flight, with one well-rated airline. What happens when the whole airport is out of action? Or the whole transport network? An entire city, or an entire region? That’s when we most need the information-exchange to work. But instead, we see all too well the gaps in information…

What are the most common complaints these days in any kind of disruption? “They didn’t tell us anything.” “We had no way to find out what was going on.” Endless variations on the same theme: no information, or information not where it’s needed, or not available in a form that can be used. Which, even for the IT-centric of ‘enterprise’-architecture, should tell us straight away that there’s a real information-issue there that can probably only be addressed with any success via a whole-of-enterprise approach. And in each case the enterprise-in-scope needs to be larger than the organisation-in-scope.

To resolve each of those various problems on our flight, the information-scope was larger than the flight itself:

  • the initial attempt to repair the cargo-door was not via airline staff but the airport ground-crew
  • the damaged door needed attention from aircraft-engineers assigned to the airport by the aircraft manufacturer
  • the flight-delay required rescheduling for ground-control at the airport and for air-traffic control once in the air
  • the airline ground-staff at the departure-airport needed to consider the impact of the delayed flight at the arrival-airport
  • rescheduling before and on arrival needed real-time knowledge of other flights across the system, in some cases including other airlines’ flights, and links to the airport baggage-handling system to re-assign and/or hold checked baggage
  • overnight stays (a legal responsibility of the airline) required links to hotel-availability information, and also coach and driver information to transfer stranded passengers to and from the hotels
  • few if any of the stranded transit-passengers had visas for that country, so the off-airport overnight-stop needed passport-information links to immigration

Not much of which, it’s clear, worked particularly well – because if it had, we wouldn’t have experienced anything like the mess that we did.

(It definitely helped that immigration there were very laid-back about it all, though, compared to the the seemingly-insane rules and regulations of so many other ’security’-obsessed countries these days: for example, why on earth does a transit-passenger from London to Mexico need a full [expensive] US visa and full immigration clearance just to pass through the sealed international-transit section of Dallas airport…??? No idea what would happen for those rare stranded-passengers whose countries or passports were incompatible: probably the only option would be to be locked up in a cell somewhere until their onward flight became available?)

All of those are large enough enterprise-architecture problems. But take the scale up a few notches, to the kind of issues that we’ve seen so often over the past few years:

  • an airline goes broke, stranding its passengers in random places across the globe: what information is needed to find them all, identify their needs (not just food and shelter, but medical and much else besides), assign the appropriate priorities, get them all to their required or alternate destinations as soon as possible
  • there’s a fire at a fuel depot, blocking the usual fuel supply-chain to the airport: what information do you need to get to airlines, to their passengers, to air-traffic control?
  • there’s a failure in the baggage-handling system: what information do you need in order to reunite the right passengers with their own baggage – and only their own baggage – when all the electronic records have been lost?
  • heavy snow closes the airport for several days: what information do you need to share with other modes of transport – rail, road, even by sea – in order to get the passengers moving onward? what information do they need in order to make the right choices? and how do you get that information to them in the most effective way?

On the surface, there are simple answers to all of those questions. But in practice, with present-day enterprise-architectures – few of which extend beyond the nominal scope of a single organisation – many of the essential links are fragile at best, or missing entirely. And the closer each system and sub-system moves to maximum ‘efficiency’, the less room there is for manoeuvre: Heathrow Airport, for example, at present often operates at or above 95% of its theoretical capacity, with each aircraft similarly close to its maximum load – hence even a single day of closure could take more than a month to clear if no other alternative transport-options exist. In essence, to make the system seem to work, we rely on people to take up the slack – abandoning their journeys, making alternate arrangements, whatever. Which kind of defeats the whole object of the extended-enterprise, namely to make it easy and convenient and reliable for people to travel as they need…

So in these days of obsessing over ‘efficiency’ and the like, how do we get back to enterprise-architecture – an architecture that provides proper support for the enterprise in context? What we’ve seen for information above applies to all other aspects of each enterprise: assets, people, process and everything else. So what do we need for the enterprise? How do we enable the requisite redundancy and resilience in the enterprise, to emphasise overall effectiveness rather than mere local ‘efficiency’? For that matter, what is ‘the enterprise’ in scope in each case – not just the organisation itself, but the broader context within which the organisation exists? How do we deliver on the real promise of enterprise-architecture, that “things work better when they work together”?

Happy Travels? Or unHappy Chaos? An interesting yet all too real challenge here for enterprise-architects and enterprise-architecture…