Why Some Business Innovations Can’t Get Off The Ground

On September 30 of this year American Airlines announced its new PriorityAAccess privileges, intended to ease the processes of checking in, getting through security, and boarding the plane for its most loyal and lucrative customers. PriorityAAccess is most visible at the gate. As I flew around the country over the past month on American (where I’m locked in because of my AAdvantage miles) I started to notice that the area in front of the door to the jetway — the place where we all line up to hand our boarding passes over to the gate agent — has been reconfigured. It now consists of two lanes, one marked "Priority Boarding" and the other marked "General Boarding" (or something similar).

According to American, "Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun." The new configuration seems to be pretty uniform; I’ve seen it at every airport I’ve flown out of over the past month, which is more than a couple.

The new configuration also seems to be uniformly ignored. My fellow travelers and I have continued to line up and board just as we always do, except now we use two narrow lanes instead of one broad one. I haven’t yet seen us fliers make any effort to sort ourselves into the ‘right’ lane, and I certainly haven’t seen anyone voluntarily take themselves out of the lane reserved for the elites and rejoin the general boarding hoi polloi.

More importantly, I also haven’t seen American’s gate agents make any effort to sort us properly. I’ve heard them make announcements about the two lanes, but that’s as far as it’s gone. I haven’t seen anyone walk the lanes to explain what’s going on and check boarding passes, and I definitely haven’t seen them turn anyone away once they reach the head of the line and hand over their boarding pass. I can only imagine what would happen if a gate agent said to someone about to board ‘Sorry, sir, you’ve been in the wrong lane. You’ll have to join the general boarding line. At the back."

It struck me at some point over the past month that I was witnessing an excellent example of why so many business improvement efforts fail: it’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s that their not easy enough to enforce. American’s PriorityAAccess boarding procedure is a straightforward case of what used to be called ‘business process reengineering,’ and it’s also a microcosm of why reengineering so often failed. It’s one thing for a small group of smart people to study an existing process and figure out a way to execute it better. It’s quite another to then deploy that new-and-improved process broadly —  across many business units, geographies, and/or interdependent groups.

As the example of AA’s new boarding process indicates, reengineering often runs aground not because customers or other external constituencies are unwilling to go along, but because employees are. Airline gate agents have plenty to do as a flight boards; is it realistic to expect them to also wrangle uneducated (and, in many cases, unwilling) fliers into the right lines all throughout the boarding process? PriorityAAccess boarding requires either that all of us travelers self-police, which seems extremely unlikely, or that American’s gate agents work diligently to enforce the new process. So far, playing enforcer here seems to be pretty low on their list of proirities. This doesn’t mean that they’re lazy or obstinate, just that they’re busy and stretched thin as it is, and I don’t see where the slack required to let them play enforcer is supposed to come from.

Which brings us (you knew this was coming, right?) to information technology. One of modern IT’s most underappreciated roles is as an enforcer of process discipline. Today’s enterprise systems make sure that complex, multi-step processes —  ones that involve employees, customers, suppliers, and other groups — are executed the same way time after time, location after location, with few or no exceptions. I just attained Platinum status on AA (a dubious achievement), which means that I can now request upgrades 72 hours in advance. I can’t sweet-talk the AA website to try to get my request in 75 hours in advance, and I’m pretty sure that if I call up the airline and try to sweet-talk the customer service rep I’ll get politely told that there’s just no way. The airline’s systems are configured to start accepting such requests no sooner than 72 hours in advance, and getting around this configuration is difficult, if not impossible, for me.

Today, the parts of a business process that are executed with the assistance of IT are the easiest ones to control, monitor, and enforce. They’re also the easiest ones to reengineer with confidence, a point Erik Brynjolfsson and I highlighted in our recent Harvard Business Review article about IT’s competitive impact (posts on this topic are here and here).

Processes that are technology-free, meanwhile, can be maddeningly difficult and slow to improve. IT-free reengineering is not impossible —  I’ve seen Southwest, for example, successfully make major changes to its boarding process, and I’ve also seen other airlines start to refuse people boarding before their group number has been called — but it’s definitely hard, often much harder than clever process architects foresee.

An old Chinese saying about the power of regional bureaucrats holds that "The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away." If remote locations, for whatever reason, don’t want to follow new orders from a central authority, there have historically been few good tools available to enforce compliance. In the era of the Internet and enterprise IT, the situation is very different. Some types of new order can be embedded in information technology so that they’re faithfully followed. Orders from headquarters that can’t be backed up with technology, meanwhile, diffuse slowly and with low fidelity, as the example of PriorityAAcesss boarding so far shows.

As technology touches more and more aspects of our working lives and business processes, the percentage of IT-free processes like PriorityAAccess should continue to decrease. As someone who wants things to run smoothly, I welcome this development. Do you? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

p.s. Happy Election Day!

p.p.s. I asked my MBA students last spring how many of them had read Hammer and Champy’s incredibly popular 1992 book Reengineering The Corporation. None of them had even heard of it. I felt old.