Reason #1: One Big Swing
The Denver Airport Baggage System is a classic project management failure due to “one big swing”. The scheme was intended to automate baggage handling throughout the airport, but proved to be much more complex than planners assumed.
The project went hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and caused the new airport to sit idle for sixteen months after original construction. It was so bad that every airline but United refused to use it.
After four project reboots, a decade and an investment of $600 million, the Denver airport gave up and returned to standard manual processes. Until then, passengers’ luggage was lost and mangled, flights were delayed and the airlines’ reputations were tarnished.
This miserable result all began with the original decision to equip a new airport and its newly assembled staff with a bespoke, untested baggage system. It overloaded an already ambitious project with an enormous burden of unknown unknowns. The construction of the airport buildings began before the new baggage handling system was fully developed.
The motivation for the rush is obvious – and hard to resist. There are calls to “do this right the first time” and “we’re only going to this once” which sound reasonable. Overly ambitious projects begin with rosy, compelling estimates of return on investment, but create the conditions for failure.