TSA: Truly Stupid A#**+#%s

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here. I had another set of luggage completely destroyed by the TSA. This is getting annoying and expensive. No, it wasn’t the airline, it was the TSA that ruined my luggage.

I use a TSA approved lock. This is one of the locks that use a master key so the TSA can enter the luggage quickly.

But the TSA seems all too often to choose to cut the luggage zippers than to bother to find the right luggage master key. A simple pair of diagonal cutters gets into luggage faster than using a key. The problem is that cropping luggage zippers with cutters permanently damages luggage and prevents using locks at any time in the future. It saves the TSA a few seconds and costs the customer $100.

This is just one more example of the callous attitude of the TSA towards the traveling public.

Certainly this non-customer friendly policy starts at the top. John Pistole, the head of TSA has never struck me as somebody that gives a dang about the public. That attitude then trickles down throughout the organization and manifests itself in the way that we all have experienced the TSA.

The TSA has never really struck me as an effective organization in the area of security, either. GSA studies have shown that the likelihood of smuggling a knife or gun aboard an airplane is roughly the same today as it was before 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of cops later, we are no more secure…just more abused.

So how could we do better?

Well, I am the head if HR and strategic hiring is one of the things I worry about. Strategic hiring is as relevant in Telcom as it is in Pulp and Paper or in the TSA. Nothing is more expensive than people, and hiring and managing people makes and breaks a company.

I don’t know what testing the TSA does when it hires people, but it is clearly not the right stuff. Likely, it is a test to see if the individual can read and write at a fourth grade level, do they understand how to follow direct orders, and do they meet a psychological profile which fits into a hierarchical model: eg, the boss is “up” and the public is “down” in the hierarchy.

Let me share how I would do things differently, assuming the objective really was to minimize terrorism.

First, I would have them play the “Where’s Waldo” game. Security is all about being observant. It is all about noticing the exception. Passing the “Where’s Waldo” test would be obligatory.

Second, I would see if they can start and make a 10 second conversation. Are they people people? Holding a brief, friendly conversation with an individual will tell you a lot. The TSA folks I know are gruff, hostile, irritable people, just like cops are supposed to be…that isn’t what you need in the airports. If McDonalds can take an order in under a minute and make you feel welcome, then so can the TSA.

Third, I would do things a whole lot smarter. When my company has acquired other firms one of the points I make very clear is that our management style is to eliminate routine, boring work so that we can do the things which are important. In our company people work smarter, not faster. This same rule apples to any organization including the TSA.

So how does this all come together?

We need people in the TSA who are observant, polite, and not burdened down with menial tasks.

Passengers should be screened based upon risk profiles. That means we need to have risk profiles, and we need to link them to passengers. The passenger’s ID card should be scanned and they should be routed to a appropriate level of screening. Luggage going through X-Ray should be bar code scanned so we know whose it is…so we know how much screening to do. (By the way, China airport security does exactly this.)

Silly rituals like taking off shoes should be eliminated…they distract us from the actual task of risk assessment. Low risk is not the same as compliant citizenry.

There should be more up-front evaluation done on travelers, and less effort on travel-day abuse.

Lastly, I think we all know that the very idea of 100% screening for terrorism is impossible. Lets accept that so we don’t go down the endless spiral of Gestapo security and start scanning people naked.

Now how does the TSA relate to Telcom?

I feel that in Telcom we all too often provide cold, impersonal service with poorly design, difficult to use equipment. Just like the TSA, we put the lowly end-users at the bottom of our priority list.

The latest and greatest VOIP telephone sets are not easier to use than the old 1A2 key systems designed in the 1960s. Ask somebody to create a 4-way conference call…nobody can do that! How is it possible that something this basic can be so difficult?

We just get caught up in features and forget that people should come ahead of technology.

When I walk into my office, why doesn’t my office phone link via Bluetooth to the cell phone in my pocket and the cell calls come in on the desk phone? Why can’t I scroll through my phone book on my desk phone…and have it access the phone book in my cell phone via Bluetooth? Why can’t I transfer a call between my desk phone and my cell phone?

Now, if you jump in and start telling me all of the technical reasons why the above things cannot be done then you are old-style TSA. I don’t want to hear it.

Lets start designing systems around people and their needs. There is absolutely no excuse for the TSA to be rude or o ruin everybody’s luggage. And, really, my office desktop phone should present the calls from my cell phone when I am within range.

People are important. Lets start designing systems to serve them.