I’ve just returned from two weeks’ vacation in Alaska. I didn’t spend my time there thinking about work, or even about lean; my wife and I were there simply to enjoy ourselves.
And let me say that the sights in Alaska are truly magnificent. If you enjoy viewing scenery and wildlife that you will see just about nowhere else in the world, I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park, a ride on the White Pass Summit Railway in Skagway, and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. (The glacier is what you see in the picture.)
But while I was in Alaska, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the flow challenges facing the tourist industry there. I don’t know whether this has ever been studied from a process viewpoint, or mapped; if not, it could be turned into a remarkable case study.
The biggest challenges involve cruises. Hundreds of thousands of people cruise Alaska every summer. The main starting and ending points for these cruises are Seward and Whittier, near Anchorage to the north, and either Seattle or Vancouver to the south. Some cruises travel in only one direction; others begin and end at the same point. (We cruised from Seward to Vancouver.) At least four or five different cruise lines offer Alaska cruises.
Caribbean cruises can select stops from among quite a few islands, but Alaska cruises have fewer choices. You can sail into Glacier Bay, and make stops at Haines, Skagway, Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. That’s about it. As a result, many ships stop at the same ports at the same time.
For example, while we were there, I saw four ships docked at Skagway simultaneously. That represents more than 5,000 passengers all descending at once on a town whose population is less than half that figure.
The towns have limited docking facilities. We actually docked at Haines and took a ferry to Skagway. As far as I know, only one ship can dock at Haines at any moment. (Most of Alaska is pretty rustic. Haines doesn’t even have any traffic lights.)
When we went to Ketchikan, we didn’t dock until the afternoon – after at least one other ship had finished a morning visit and left.
A cruise line may list two dozen excursions available at any given port. These include helicopter and plane flights, hiking or kayaking, historical tours of towns, visits to native villages, and many more. Any one of these excursions may be open to passengers of several different ships.
So as the passengers pour off a given ship, a horde of tour guides and buses are waiting, holding up signs and pictures so each passenger can find his or her excursion. And of course, many passengers don’t sign up for excursions, but simply decide to explore the town on their own.
Similar situations exist inland. Like many people, we were traveling on a land/cruise package that also took us far inland, to Fairbanks and Denali, before the cruise – which involved travel, also arranged by the cruise line, on trains and buses.
There are many different land packages. We met people in Fairbanks who were ultimately headed for the same cruise as us, but were traveling to different land locations first. Think of the coordination involved. (I even met a man whose package was taking him to Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska’s northern coast, where he planned to take a polar bear swim in the bay. I guess he wants to be able to say he did it.)
And of course, none of this includes the many tourists who travel through Alaska on their own, not part of any package. (However, we were told that, with the rising price of gas, the number of RVs seen in the state has dropped dramatically.)
For the most part, it all works pretty well. There are occasional glitches, like when we had to wait an extra half hour for our ferry to Skagway, on an unprotected dock in the chill, damp air (Alaska is having a colder-than-usual summer). We were told everything in Alaska is on “ish” time – your ferry doesn’t pick you up at 3, but at “3-ish.”
And while occasionally the parts of the process can make you feel like you are on an assembly line, that doesn’t last long. I highly recommend going to Alaska.
I don’t know how it is all coordinated. Clearly, the cruise lines, the ports and the local excursion providers work closely together. I’d love to see it laid out on a process map.
Is there a lean manufacturing graduate student out there looking for a thesis project?