Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Flying With Soft Power

Jetsgo’s demise after three short years reminds us once again that the airline industry is not for the faint of heart. Failure and struggle characterize the experience more than prosperity. In the case of Jetsgo, analysts have focused on common themes, such as the wrong business model, high-risk expansion strategy and cut-throat competition. All are valid factors, any one of which when done poorly would put a business in jeopardy. But, aside from these, did the analysts miss the real heart of the matter—“soft power”?

How otherwise can one explain the sustainability of Southwest Airlines amongst the detritus of struggling and defunct airlines? Many, like Jetsgo, have strived in vain to copy Southwest’s low cost no frills model. While one after another airline has fallen by the wayside, year over year Southwest survives and thrives defying all odds. WestJet, another Southwest knock-off, is the exception. It appears to have staying power, keeping true to the Southwest formula and growing steadily despite serious allegations from competitors such as Jetsgo.

Jody Hoffer Gittell of Brandeis University, who extensively researched Southwest and its American competitors, sums up the formula in one word---“relationships”. She contends that Southwest’s acumen at “relational coordination” is the core of its success. She describes relational coordination as shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. These are universal capabilities that she found in other successful organizations too. She contends that Southwest’s approach is applicable to any organization for increasing efficiency and productivity, let alone creating a positive culture.

Gittell’s research compellingly demonstrates how tightly linked cross functional coordination at the front line boosts performance. Using the values of caring and respect to guide all interactions, Southwest accomplishes enviable functional interdependence with methods that fly in the face of management trends. For example, rich staffing levels, not simply good technology drive Southwest’s success. Each supervisor is responsible for 10 to 12 front line workers, the highest supervisor-to-employee ratio in the industry. Each flight at Southwest has its own operations agent who acts as a “boundary spanner” engaging in face-to-face contact with each function before, during and after the turnaround of a flight. The operations agent focuses on one flight at a time, unlike those in other airlines who juggle several flights simultaneously.

Everyone at Southwest is aware that turnaround time is critical for efficiency, customer service and the ongoing viability of the airline. When problems arise, as they inevitably do, each flight team owns the problem rather than a function. Other airlines, according to Gittell, skimp at their peril on this vital coordination process. As a result, they sacrifice the power that it generates---relationships. The dynamic social cohesion arising from the soft power of the strong relationships drive all elements of success at Southwest including continuous learning.

The “engaged” worker is touted in the management literature as essential to the longevity of an organization. Productivity studies remind us repeatedly that human skills and innovation are the drivers of growth and that we are not necessarily doing a good job at it. From the ‘engaged” perspective, we are getting compliance but not necessarily commitment often because we are unable to connect with the real world view of another and we do not share information on a timely basis. We divide ourselves up by function and title. We protect our turf often with disastrous consequences such as the terrorist calamities we have suffered through in the last few years.

Poor management related to “silos”, inadequate information exchange and lack of intelligent imagination is almost always cited as a prime reason for not preventing terrorist acts or the eventual fall of once seemingly well-functioning organizations. Yet, with leaders who actually “see” the whole rather than the parts, we can overcome our parochialism, walk together and be truly engaged in achieving outstanding results and averting potential adverse consequences. Southwest, by virtue of its overarching commitment to relationships has proven that “soft power” when implemented with heart and discipline can provide the right fuel in an extremely challenging business.

If you believe that this can only be achieved in a non-union environment, think again. Southwest like its counterparts is highly unionized. It helps to have a founder who was taught at an early age to value each and every human being and that “respect” is an absolute requirement for gaining anyone’s heart.

Jon R. Katzenbach, a New York management consultant, who also studied Southwest Airlines, believes that “pride” is the sustaining phenomenon (“Why Pride Matters More Than Money: The Power of the World’s Greatest Motivational Force”). We can surmise that empathy is a critical means of creating pride. Empathy is the way we often experience respect because to walk in someone else’s shoes, we must engage in dialogue with that person. We must listen to understand, as Stephen Covey so passionately explains. This sends a message—that every person counts. This is Southwest’s not so secret flying power.

No comments: