Terminal 5 debacle – as usual, it’s a people management problem

After last week’s disaster at Terminal 5, the accusations are starting to fly.

It appears that staff at BA and BAA warned their bosses that the new systems and processes would not work but their concerns were batted away with it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night assurances. I have seen this happen before on projects. Everyone gets so carried away with having to meet the deadlines and with the frenetic energy that builds up as the go-live date nears, that dissenters are either ignored or slapped down. The bigger and more prestigious the project, the less the bosses want to hear from nay-sayers.

Throughout this project, the staff consultation seems to have been poorly managed. Donald Clark places Veronica Kumar, BAA’s senior HR manager in T5, at the top of his blame list. Apparently, staff were invited into the new terminal to watch films and upbeat presentations, where they were given bags of popcorn and mock boarding cards asking ‘Are you up for it? This is all good Appreciative Inquiry stuff and very much in vogue amongst employee communications consultants. The trouble is, unless you get staff working on the nuts and bolts, testing the new systems to breaking point, all the rah-rah motivational events are superfluous.

Now If you read this blog regularly, you may remember that Veronica Kumar upset the unions at Heathrow when she said that her aim was a de-unionised Terminal 5. I wonder if she is regretting that, now that BA and BAA need all the staff goodwill they can get as they appeal for volunteers to come in and help sort out the mess.

This, too, is an unfortunate feature of high-profile projects. Managers like to get their names in the press by using state-of-the-art methods and showing that they are consigning the old ways of working to the dustbin. Alas, if you don’t get the basics right, this is like putting icing on a mouldy cake. Flashy methodologies and gung-ho attacks on trade unions might get your picture in HR Magazine but they are no substitute for the slow grind of thorough user acceptance testing.

T5 was seen as an opportunity to build new and more productive relationships between BA and BAA and between management and staff. Instead, it has probably done long-term damage to both and made Heathrow a global laughingstock into the bargain.

When a project goes so wrong that it delivers the exact opposite of what was intended, enlightened managers will sit down and try to work out just why this happened. Let’s hope that BA and BAA have such leaders and that they can stop blaming each other for long enough to make sure that a similar fiasco never happens again.

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8 Responses to Terminal 5 debacle – as usual, it’s a people management problem

  1. Pingback: Terminal 5 debacle - as usual, it’sa people management problem | Management

  2. People management is of course a varied course that must be undertaken. The problem is the continual failure of past years once we moved into the modern workforce. In my book, Wingtips with Spurs: Lessons from the Ranch, I address these various problems within people management and try to present solutions.

  3. Jez says:

    So now it appears that BA has told uniformed staff not to wear their uniforms until they actually get to work in T5 becuase anyone in a BA uniform gets mobbed by angry passengers. True to form, BA has found a solution that really gets to the root of the problem: pretend you don’t work for BA. Fantastic.

  4. chipper says:

    It would be fascinating to know a little bit more about the involvement of Potential Squared – the consultancy organisation used by Veronica Kumar to provide staff training and motivation. In particular, it would be interesting to know how much they charged for their valuable input; and to know if they plan a post-mortem following this fiasco. It is also interesting to see that BAA / BA fail to appear on their website list of valued clients – surely not an attempt to ‘cover their tracks’???

  5. Neil says:

    It is interesting, isn’t it? For me, the Challenger Disaster is still the classic example of management ignoring warnings from their staff because of pressure to launch (literally).


    Here, the Engineering VP was told, “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat”, when he raised concerns before launch…

  6. Rick says:

    Neil, there is a similar scenario in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ about the landings at Arnhem in the Second World War. An army officer points out that the weather forecast is bad and that the glider support troops will be unable to get through. His commanding officers threaten him with a court martial.

    Chipper, I’m not sure what Potential Squared’s brief was. It may be that they were just hired to do the motivational stuff and were told that the technical stuff was covered. In that case, all they could do would be to feed back staff concerns. I’m not trying to get them off the hook. It does appear that too much effort was directed at motivation and communication and not enough at the nuts and bolts, but until I know more about what Potential Squared were booked to do, it seems a bit unfair to slag them off.

  7. chipper says:


    look at this for the background:

    Click to access BAA-Terminal5-Case-Study.pdf

  8. Pingback: Change management? Nay lad, just sack the lot of ‘em! « Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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