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Applying Policies: Lessons from The Security Checkpoint

Written by: Bill Sherman on Sunday, 24 February 2008, 5:39 PM

Recently, I flew from St. Louis to Ft. Lauderdale via Southwest for a client meeting. Normally, my trip through the security checkpoint is brief and uneventful. Yet this time, I experienced how process and procedure can place us into unexpected situations. Here’s the story.

Just before 8 a.m., I stood just outside the TSA checkpoint in Lambert’s East Terminal. Preparing for the TSA screening has become a ritual for me.


  • My jacket and belt went into my garment bag.
  • My phone, keys, and business card case go in the outside flap of my laptop bag.
  • I pull out my wallet and remove my drivers license (so they can use the nifty blue flashlight from CSI on it. I’m not sure whether the blue flashlight finds DNA evidence, detects fake college IDs, or identifies terrorists, but I want one of those blue flashlights).
  • Then, I put my laptop into one bin.
  • My shoes and my quart ziploc (full of liquids) into a separate bin.
  • I hold my boarding pass at chest height (like I’m doing a mug shot) and prepare to walk through security

Now, before I go further, let me emphasize that I rarely check a bag. In fact, for all the flights I’ve flown in the past 18 months, I may have checked a bag on just one r/t flight. At this point, I’m ready to go through security.

I’m about to walk through the scanner when a young man from TSA calls me back over to my bags.

“Excuse me sir, I need to speak to you about your liquids.” (This seems somewhat personal to me.)

[The TSA employee points to my hair gel nestled in with my medications].

“Sir, that container says 3.2 ounces. You can only have 3 ounces in any one container. Would you like to check your bag with Southwest?”

[I smile and give the man credit. He’s being polite. I point at the clear bottle’s contents.]

“The bottle is more than half-empty. There has to be less than 1.5 ounces left in the bottle. I’ve been flying with this exact bottle for months.”

“I’m sorry. Our boss used to allow us discretion on contents. Now, we can’t let anything through that’s labeled more than 3 ounces.”

[I smile sympathetically. Inside, I’m cheerful as can be.]

So, if I had a six-ounce bottle with just a few drops of liquid in it?”

“We couldn’t let it through. I’m really sorry sir. I know that’s less than the amount you should be able to bring through security.”

[I smile again–as warmly as I can.]

“I don’t need to check it.”

“You sure, sir?”

“Yeah, it cost me $3 bucks.”

“I’m really sorry, sir. Have a good flight!” (he says cheerfully)

Since 2001, I’ve gone through the airport screening procedures without a hitch. Now, a little over six years later, I’ve finally had something confiscated. I figured this story alone was worth $1.50 in hair gel. I was actually exceptionally pleased by the experience. In many ways, the TSA employee handed a difficult situation very well. He had to enforce a policy without any room for discretion.

  • Which rules do you and your team need to follow exactingly? (These can be compliance requirements, organizational policies, or laws)
  • Which rules and policies will require people to exercise their own judgment? Have you empowered them to do so?
  • When there’s a discrepancy between rule and judgment, how do you expect people to respond?
  • When you have to enforce a rule, how do you communicate this “bad news” message to someone?

These actions don’t happen by accident. They require both forethought and training. Whether you’re a employee in a company or a leader of a company, you want to understand and make conscious choices around policies. How you set and implement policy can make a huge difference in the customer experience. With each policy interaction, you can produce irate customers or you can win them to your side as understanding/accepting customers.

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