What does Six Sigma have to do with travel? You’d be surprised

six sigma

How do you make a good traveler even better? That’s the question Kaj Ahlmann, owner of the Six Sigma Ranch in Northern California’s Lake County, has contemplated most of his career.

With a name like that, you’d expect nothing less. After all, Six Sigma – a set of management techniques that improve business processes – is all about making things better. Ahlmann has applied them to winemaking, but when I visited his ranch recently, he said Six Sigma works for travel, too.

You’re probably already using the Six Sigma principles of continuous improvement in a limited way. But if you think about it, you can also start applying them to your planning and problem-solving efforts, to really upgrade your next business or leisure trip.

You’re already improving travel through Six Sigma

“Every intelligent person uses Six Sigma to some extent,” Ahlmann told me.

Before he started making award-winning wines, Ahlmann served as a director of GE Capital Services. That’s where he oversaw the introduction of Six Sigma methods of business transformation. This concept of constant improvement had strong applications in travel, he soon found.

“If you think of a trip as a set of processes, it’s actually pretty easy,” he says. “Think through all the steps. I leave my home, I go to the airport, I get on the plane, I arrive, I get on a train, I get to the hotel, I check in.”

Thinking about the Six Sigma processes – define, measure, analyze, improve – before you leave can lead to a smoother trip.

“You’re synching through it. You’re living through it before it happens,” he says.

Inexperienced travelers don’t see these as connected processes, which gets them into trouble on the road. They aren’t asking, “What’s next?” so when they encounter a problem, they don’t know what to do. They’re a lot like a company with different divisions that don’t operate as part of the whole.

And yes – Ahlmann says he missed a few flights before he understood that travel was a process rather than a single event.

“I was thinking in boxes. Then I got to the airport, and I wasn’t thinking ahead,” he admits.

You don’t have to know anything about Six Sigma or attend business school to use these principles to improve your next trip. Just remember to think ahead, try not to repeat your mistakes and mind your manners.

Remember, Six Sigma is a process

Ahlmann’s view of travel has changed as Six Sigma has taken root in his own life. Too often, he sees fellow travelers lack any kind of cohesive strategy when they go somewhere. Non-Six Sigma travelers speed down Northern California wine country’s narrow, winding roads, only to miss their flights by a few minutes. And then there’s the inevitable meltdown at the counter, where they demand to be let on the plane after the door closes.

“Many travelers feel that those few extra minutes matter,” he says. “The time saved isn’t worth the danger. Besides, there’s always another flight. It’s not the end of the world. Don’t freak out.”

When you think of the trip as a process, as opposed to a single event, then you can avoid the whole spectacle. Give yourself a little extra time. If you’re stuck in traffic, see that there are multiple solutions (like an alternate route or taking the next flight). Plus, there are ways to prevent the same outcome the next time (leave early or book a different airline with more convenient departures).

Perhaps the most significant benefit to applying Six Sigma to travel is that it improves future trips. Once you’ve made the process more efficient, your next trip will be even better. And Ahlmann has it down to a science, from a preferred seat on a plane to the ideal hotel. He usually flies commercial and likes boutique hotels, but sometimes, for the sake of efficiency, he’ll take a Gulfstream or stay in a convention hotel. It depends on the occasion.

Patience and politeness above all

Because Six Sigma is a process, it can take time to get it right. And even when you get it right, there’s always room for improvement. Ahlmann says some travelers lose their patience too quickly and try to negotiate themselves out of a mess.

It’s the classic elite-level business traveler who plunks down the platinum card and declares, “Do you know who I am?”

“Don’t plunk down your card,” he says. “A smile means more than, ‘Hmmph, I’m platinum!’ Be nice. You’ll feel a lot better yourself.”

All processes – even the most efficient, time-tested ones – break down from time to time. When they do, being nice helps. Nice is a currency in the Six Sigma travel world, he says. Genuine kindness, as opposed to being a platinum-card wielding jerk, can open doors and can often turn a “no” into a “yes.”

You don’t have to know anything about Six Sigma or attend business school to use these principles to improve your next trip, Ahlmann adds. Just remember to think ahead, try not to repeat your mistakes and mind your manners out there.

A few more travel tips from the Six Sigma vineyard

In 2000, Kaj Ahlmann and his wife Else bought a 4,300-acre ranch. They released their first wines under the Six Sigma label in 2006.

• Function over form. Ahlmann and his son, Christian, offer two-hour tours of the winery in an Austrian Pinzgauer High-Mobility All-Terrain Vehicle. It’s used mostly by European militaries to move troops – basic transportation. It’s a reminder that travel is, in the end, a way of getting from point A to point B.

• Don’t see barriers. On a vineyard tour, Ahlmann pointed to an area of fence that bears continue to scale in search of delicious grapes. “We see the fence, but the bears don’t,” he says. That kind of mindset is essential to implementing Six Sigma in the winery – and in travel. A trip is a series of processes without any barriers between them.

• Get creative. Winemaking the Six Sigma way, which avoids the use of pesticides and herbicides, is a series of creative solutions and workarounds. Ahlmann’s son, Christian, uses sheep to fertilize and mow the vineyards after the harvest, for example. That same kind of creativity, which allows you to find an alternate solution even when it seems there’s only one way, is necessary when you’re on the road.

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Posted in On Travel

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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