Gridlock by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by Author

What’s your travel story? … If you travel, period, you have a travel story – or fifty! With more travelers, tighter security, bigger people, and fewer manners, traveling post 9/11 sucks. OK, I know I just offended some of you because I used the word, “sucks”, but I know of no better word that communicates so well the challenges of traveling by air.

Yes, flying first/business class is better than coach/cattle class. Yes, some airlines are better than others (Singapore Air vs. Delta). Yes, there are “tricks” that can help ease some of the travel headache. But in the end, air travel these days “sucks.” Period. End of discussion. … Well, almost.

I won’t bore you with all the details of my latest travel saga. I’ll give the 2-minute version. After traveling half way ‘round the world and being “at it” for over 24 hours, I landed in a large airport only to find mass confusion entering the immigration area. The picture above was BEFORE the mass confusion occurred. Within minutes of taking the above picture, all empty spaces were filled. There were no lines. People were pushing. And angry. There was no air conditioning or fans. No authority figure explaining how the process worked or trying to bring order. I had a small carry-on briefcase that had wheels and a handle. You couldn’t pull it.

In the end, I got through in just over two hours. Tired. Frustrated. Stinky. And smarter. … Smarter you ask? How so? Well, I always try to take life’s challenges, sand-in-the-shoe moments, or boulder-in-the-shoe events, and learn from them. Why not? After all, being “mad” doesn’t change the situation. I wasn’t getting through immigration any faster. Why let someone else’s incompetence and lack of organizational planning make my blood pressure go up.

Immediately after getting off the plane (and I was ahead of 95% of the people on my plane) and arriving at immigration, a man in front of me, clearly perturbed, said, “We picked the wrong line. The others are moving faster.” And it went downhill from there. I ignored him, afraid of what might come out of my mouth. After about 15 minutes of prayer and deep-breathing (really!), I remembered I had a small travel fan that folds up the size of a teacup saucer. I got it out and started fanning myself. The lady beside me (standing on the edge of my sandal) clearly like the breeze. After a few minutes I offered her a “turn” with my fan. She accepted and then asked if her teenage daughter could have a go at it. I said, “Sure.”

As I looked around the room, I started praying. For my patience, for my fatigue, for others in the room, for the immigration officers, for my family … you get the picture. Soon, I started thinking about what I could learn from this “mess.” As a business/operations executive, I often noticed (and try to eliminate) inefficiencies. I try to set up tools that helps me stay organized. That helps me prioritize and lead more efficiently. I also try to create and encourage the productivity tools for the organization I lead.

Though it’s been many years ago, I started my career as an improvement and quality engineer. We studied (and attended live conferences) by gurus like W. Edwards Deming, Myron Trybus, Joseph Juran, and Masaaki Imai. We had our act together, becoming a finalist for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and winning the award a few years later. I was a certified quality engineer (with the American Society of Quality), a master black belt and lean sensei. In other words, I studied process. I studied efficiency. I knew the tools.

As I looked around the immigration hall, breathing slowly, I realized how blessed I was to have received the training I did (classroom and experiential). I realized how blessed I was to meet some of the true “gurus” in-person. I realized how blessed I’ve been with resources where I’ve worked.

Yes, it was hot and chaotic, but my anger couldn’t change it. I determined to make a few mental notes and improve my personal effectiveness. I determined to have a positive attitude (not perfect, but acceptable!).

In the end, I was reminded how important it is for all of us as leaders to establish processes that enable efficiency, that act as a catalyst for improvement, and that help our organizations run more smoothly, increasing productivity. I was reminded to learn from life’s events that we encounter (good, bad, and ugly) and control my attitude.

How about you? What is your travel story? I’m willing to bet there’s a lesson you could share with us about your experience.

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

6 thoughts on “Gridlock

  1. Okay it wasn’t the “S…” word that offended me it was the “bigger people” one that did. Just kidding just kidding!
    For me it was a flight from Frankfort to Chicago. You can guess the airline. People were bringing on everything but the kitchen sink. Three & four carry on’s. So overhead room and every nook & cranny was taken.
    When the flight attendant made the announcement about too many things being carried on her words were, “It appears that many of you brought too many pieces on board with you.” It APPEARS!!! It APPEARS!! You stood there and watched them carry it all past you! What were you thinking!?! I had to hold my briefcase on my lap all the way to Chicago.
    I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from that experience. Perhaps you can help me figure it out!
    Loved the post,
    Thanks so much,

    • Hi Dave –

      I got a good laugh from your story. True! … Perhaps one lesson is that behavior is a function of consequences (not a paper process or rule). The airline has certain “rules” – such as those concerning carry-on luggage. … By choice, they choose not to enforce the rules and, instead, allow chaos to reign. For the person who violates the rules and gets away with it, the consequences are positive and reinforce the behavior. A system like this often has very predictable results. Imagine a kindergarten class without rules that were reinforced. … A key is to have a few key processes/rules and then really follow-up and enforce them via appropriate consequences.


  2. Robert,
    My worst trip was to Argentina on Aerolineas Argentinas. The company went on strike the night we were to fly. I was leading a team for a short-term missionary trip to Aguaray. We had to spend the night on the Miami airport floor because the company took no responsibility for hotel rooms. We finally left in the morning but–of course–we missed our flight to Salta. They didn’t want to honor our tickets!!! After much discussion, they finally found a flight for us with a different airline. On our way home, same problem. It was a total nightmare and I must admit that I lost my cool at one point, and I am not proud of that. But, in my defense, the travel agent in Miami, advised my, “Sir, it looks like the only alternative you have at this point is to get tough with these people. We have done everything in our power to get them to work with you from our end. I suggest raise the level of confrontation.” I am sorry today that I took that travel agent’s advice because it accomplished nothing. I vowed after that trip never to fly with Aerolineas Argentinas again. BTW, when the Bible tells us we have to forgive, does that include companies?
    Thanks Robert,

    • Greg –

      haha … I don’t know if companies and airlines are included. OK, I guess they probably are. … Your story sounds t-e-r-r-i-b-l-y frustrating – wow! … In your story, one lesson, as you note, is whom to avoid. Great service providers and products draw us back and build loyalty. The other side of the coin is true as well. … Also, as you know, almost all “frustrating” circumstances provide a wonderful (if, at times, unwelcome) opportunity for character development.


  3. Okay just one more story! This one is funny & almost unbelievable. In September of 1992 I was scheduled to take a flight from Odessa, Ukraine to Moscow. There were eight of us traveling together. Because of traveling conditions we hadn’t had a meal in 36 hours. When we got to the airport we found out the plane was overbooked. Yet no one missed the plane. About 17 people stood in the aisle the entire way. An eighty year old woman sat on a peach crate outside the cockpit door. When we were going up the stairs to get on the plane you could see the steel belts on the tires.
    Food was sold on the plane and the stewardesses were coming through selling it to the passengers. It never got by the eight of us. Because we hadn’t eaten for 36 hours we bought all the cookies, cakes and soda on the cart.
    I really wasn’t fearful. We were on God’s errand and that made me feel safe.

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