Sunday, May 16, 2010

Southwest Airlines Lightened Weighty Issues

There’s no love from most airlines when it comes to slightly overweight luggage. The fees get slapped on even for a pound, unless the ticket agent takes pity. And that’s rare. Can you blame them with the price of oil, volcanic eruptions from Iceland and such? But, all airlines are not equal. Why is Southwest Airlines far more flexible than others?

Other airlines just don’t get customer loyalty the way Southwest Airlines does.

Our son’s “overweight” luggage fees in one month this year reached an all time high of almost $500.00 U.S. That’s not counting the cost of the tickets. Granted he’s a touring golf pro who criss-crosses the States with a bag of golf clubs plus his normal luggage in which he says he carries “his life”. But, no matter his efforts to economize, if a pound or three overweight he got “dinged”. Even when he was forced to stay overnight part way to his destination due to mechanical problems, the particular airline insisted on charging him. Again, this is not ten pounds overweight per piece of luggage but one to three pounds. You can imagine the customer experience at the ticket counter. Not much laughing going on.

Faced with the intractability of the airlines, our son vowed to re-examine every bit of his packing to get the weight down. He bought a bigger back pack (still within regulations) so that he could “carry on” his golf balls and shoes. He bought new luggage that “looked” lighter. He pared his clothes down and his toiletries. He weighed his luggage before going to the airport and thought he’d nailed it this time.

Despite his extensive travelling during his amateur golf years while at university and as a new pro, our son had never booked with Southwest Airlines. But, because of attractive prices and Southwest’s availability, he decided to give it a go. He was still almost a pound overweight for his golf clubs and his regular luggage. But SW waived overweight fees. Plus when he changed a flight a few days later, there were no change fees. Now that IS a new experience!

Customer loyalty is a deep experience of something not felt before.

The relief at having a reasonable ticket agent making sensible decisions was almost a shock. Customer loyalty? Our son is “in”. To seal his warm feelings for SW, he had David Holmes, a “rappin’ fight attendant, belting out the usually boring flight instructions.

Southwest Airlines excels at relationships.

Jody Hoffer Gittell, an assistant professor at Brandeis University studied Southwest Airlines in depth after 9/11. She wanted to better understand why it “has a consistent record of profitability and performance in a turbulent industry”. In her 2003 book, The Southwest Airlines Way, she explains that the differentiating factor between SW and other airlines is a focus on relationships: shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect, timely problem solving dialogue among employees and always “leaning toward the customer”. Other airlines have, for the most part, been unable to replicate this.

Quite frankly, I have expected the penny to drop since then and Southwest Airlines to succumb to the incessant turmoil and spiraling costs in the industry. SW hasn’t been without controversy, most recently when it booted out Kevin Smith, a filmmaker, because he was too fat for one seat. But, when Kevin, who has over a million followers tweeted his distress, the airline went overboard to fix matters with him through multiple tweets to him, an apologetic blog and some fence-mending on booking a flight.

How many customers did SW gain (versus lose) with the handling of this incident?

We are social beings and thrive or not on relationships. Southwest Airlines at the least understands this and strives to build bonds whenever it can. Individual employees at other airlines do so too. But they don’t quite have the strong culture supporting them as do employees at SW. In an imperfect world, focusing on relationships like teamwork and customized problem-solving on the front-line are not easy, especially when the bottom line is a constant worry (and some customers can be difficult).

Yet, ironically, the soft touch helps the bottom line.

Related blogs:

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Architecture of Talent: Myelin Makes Perfect

Skill is insulation that wraps around neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.

---Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Why do we admire talent?
Highly talented persons are awesome to behold. They fill our minds and bodies with joy, amazement, admiration, and quite often relief because they cracked the intractable problem we were facing for which we wanted their help. They make our lives easier, guide us through the jungle, entertain and uplift us with their prowess and often simplify the complex world in which we live. The superhighways in their brains sheathed in myelin, the insulator of nerve cells and facilitator of speedy transmission of impulses, enable their expertise to shine through unconsciously. This is not innate. They have built their skills step by step over many years through “deep practice” or “deliberate practice”, Anders Ericsson’s term for operating at the edges of our ability and reaching further through targeted practice.

Deep or deliberate practice which generates and sustains top talent is not yet in the “DNA” of organizations
We could do with more attention to “myelin-building” in organizations, especially in developing stronger managers and leaders or individual contributors who must participate in teams and relate well to customers and stakeholders. Most of us have experienced a “deep practice” world throughout our formal education. Through a succession of courses and multiple years of “training” our expertness in a particular professional or technical domain flourished. Thereafter, despite the continuing education requirements of our respective associations, a growing body of research indicates that we tend to plateau or deteriorate, unless the circumstances of our jobs enable the right kind of expertise development.

Scientists and educators have been tweaking the “deliberate practice” phenomenon for about 150 years
In the last ten years or so, a proliferation of popular press authors has brought academia out of the closet enriching our understanding of the nature versus nurture debate. They include Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) and David Shenk (The Genius in All of Us) among others. It is now clear: we can “nurture” our talents if we attend to the process in a certain way. Our raw natural capabilities are much more malleable than hitherto believed in the 20th century.

It’s rather scary and exciting: the architecture of our brains is in our hands. The thoughts we choose and the practices we implement send signals to our “living brain”. Since nerves that fire together stay together, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes the circuit.

The “deep practice” technique is straightforward, but execution cannot be done in isolation
The “sweet spot”, as Daniel Coyle calls the “uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities where our reach exceeds our grasp”, can be developed with four easy steps:

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one.
Sounds simple, but what target? And, how can you truly evaluate what you are doing? The goal is always self-sufficiency and being your own coach. However, outside coaching is almost always necessary to “scaffold” a person to another deeper level of knowing and skill. Educators are well aware of impact of the “scaffolding” technique such that they routinely use it as a support structure to help their students master a task or concepts. In addition to educators, coaches of sports teams, elite musicians and artists, who intuitively “scaffold” their emerging prodigies, are soaking up the overflowing research on the “architecture of talent” and testing it in the playing field and the classroom. Thanks to the “bridge” writers between academia and the real world, the blueprint for expanding the talent pool is seeping into organizational life too. But, at a snail’s pace in comparison. Deliberate practice is a heavy investment in time and effort for any person. If you are a leader-manager, your commitment to “deep learning” can make a significant difference to your performance as a master coach and by association that of your team. To achieve such exceptional skill means terrible difficulties along the way. Are you ready for such a sacrifice? Related blogs: