'Complex systems and difficult interfaces - isn't that supposed to be us?'
When I talk to groups of staff at King's about innovation in the way we deliver services I have a habit of contrasting our slow, complex processes, where the hassle is borne by patients and their relatives, with the best of the service industry.
Look at banking or insurance and note how the grind has been taken back by the service provider. Look at how we book our holidays online. So taking the family on holiday should represent a break from consideration of flow management, constraints theory, demand and capacity analysis and the management of contingency.
Let's start with the packing. Ryanair's 15kg weight limit for hold baggage prompted an anxious search for lightweight bags. Our robust cases weigh up to 6kg. We are required to make a trade-off between robustness and what we can take - quite a problem for a variable climate destination. I suspect many reading this will have experienced baggage destruction from one flight or another. I stood on the bathroom scales with each bag while Sue subtracted my 81kg to determine the weights. I feel a gag about weighting times coming on.
Driving to Stansted was uneventful, and we had taken the useful step of pre-booking the long-term car park. The tricky element here was finding a parking space near the bus stop - our lightweight bags have no wheels so the shortest stagger possible is helpful. That achieved we awaited the bus with an early temptation to holiday excitement. We were relieved of this by the 20-minute wait.
By the time the bus arrived the queue extended about 30m beyond the stop. A scrum predictably ensued, fuelled by anxiety about check-in deadlines and awkward bag carrying. Bad moments on the Victoria Line came to mind.
The check-in process was above reproach (although I suspect a more sophisticated eye might comment on individual queues per flight and consequent carve-out). Cheerful staff with good eye contact. We could learn something from the consistent display here. The only disturbance was the regular need to make way for other travellers in an undersized check-in hall.
We were prepared for the security check, and expectation got it closer to tolerability. All liquids within container limits and appropriately bagged - with the exception of a bottle of gel in our 10-year-old's rucksack. I blame myself for this since for me hair gel ceased to be a consideration in the 1980s. I should have remembered our boys are optimists. The only other curiosity was the apparently optional nature of the footwear check.
Once into the departure lounge we saw for ourselves what has recently been reported. It is undersized, and key facilities have turned into queue city. (People occasionally complain about the toilets at King's but a woman can use them without queuing.) This prompted us to make for the gate asap. Mercifully, there was a snack bar nearby. Our habit of repeatedly checking the information boards spared us the delusion that we were in the right place since the gate had changed.
When we arrived at the new gate the number of travellers was almost more than the space available. Not helpful for a family ahead of us who discovered they were in the wrong line and were attempting an about-face manoeuvre. Ironically, the plane itself had 44 empty seats. This is a relief for people like me; at 1.89m tall, I find sideways movement on a plane is a rare joy, forward movement unobtainable.
Complex systems, numerous hand-offs, choke points, difficult interfaces between different organisations - isn't that supposed to be us?
The warmth of Northern Italy helpfully dissipated these observations, as did the hotel facilities and service (though my youngest son found the female proprietor frighteningly tactile). In my mind's ear I usually hear hotel staff asking 'how would you like to pay?' So it was interesting to find three different types of currency in play - cash, credit cards, and coupons. Neither traveller's cheques nor credit cards were accepted for payment for the tennis lessons. This prompted an anxious time at the hole in the wall going through sufficient cards to meet the bill, given the daily 250 Euro maximum on each. Another family could only redeem their traveller's cheques at a local travel agency after a bank declined them. You can imagine the toing and froing. The hassle is back with the consumer.
For most of the time we were blissfully free from all this. The remaining exception was our decision to take the cable car at Monte Baldo. An initial queue was enough to distract me from a small-print notice about a one-hour delay at the mid-station. I only glimpsed this as Sue was buying the tickets. There was no warning about the one-hour delay to get the first car. Neither delay was helped by the greenhouse-style buildings serviced by what architects euphemistically refer to as 'natural ventilation'.
One glance at the cable cars themselves told the story - exquisitely undersized for demand and linked in such a way that one could go up only if the other was coming down. It cried out for a continuous flow of smaller vehicles (such as a bubble lift system) to eliminate the two choke points.
It would be churlish to dwell on the blockage points on single-lane highways, last-minute bag reweighing and scrum-like departure gates on the journey home. And the destruction of the handle on our only case with wheels by the time it got to the arrivals carousel is already a distant memory. Although we resolved to travel by train or car or both next year we still enjoyed ourselves and felt well-served in many respects.
I know there is nothing new in my experience. But I am going to be more careful in future about my thoughts on the best of the service industry and how we must develop similarly capable models.