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Southwest: valuing team players over top-performers

With 42 consecutive years of profitability in an extremely competitive industry, Southwest Airlines is one of the most honored airlines in the world. Southwest also rates consistently high in Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America”. Clearly, Southwest is doing something right. In his book The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Gitell shows how a culture of customer-centricity and collaboration has allowed Southwest to stay at the top for decades.

For Southwest, taking care of business literally means taking care of relationships. These relationships – with and between employees as well as outside parties – are seen as the foundation of Southwest’s competitive advantage, through good times and bad.

According to Gitell, three elements lie at the heart of the Southwest success story: organizational practices, work environment and communication.

10 organizational practices

These ten key practices foster and harness internal and external relationships:

1. Credible and empathetic leadership

Leadership at Southwest revolves around establishing credibility – the ability to inspire trust in their workers and empathy – caring deeply for the well-being of the employees. Southwest’s high profile former CEO, Herb Kelleher, exemplified credibility for always telling things like they were, without sugar coating. One way empathy is demonstrated is by the fact the company has a no layoff record, even in the face of the dramatic ebbs and flows of the airline industry.

2. Investing in front-line leaders

Southwest has more supervisors per frontline employee than all other airlines, and the company excels at training these supervisors to provide leadership on day-to-day issues. The supervisors act as “player coaches” in that they have managerial responsibility but they also perform the same tasks as the frontline employees.

3. Hiring and training for relationship excellence

Southwest makes a deliberate effort to hire team-players and then invests heavily in developing these relational skills. Unlike Netflix, another famous example of a company founded on the conviction that having the right culture is vital to its success, Southwest doesn’t attempt to recruit the elite. Instead, Southwest attracts people who will be able to integrate smoothly with other members on a team, even pilots!

4. Using conflicts to build relationships

Instead of viewing conflicts as a destructive force, Southwest uses them constructively to build relationships and improve performance. To resolve conflicts, Southwest has a well defined process. By using these conflicts productively as opportunities for learning, Southwest strengthens relationships between groups of employees, shares knowledge and fosters mutual respect between different teams within the company.

5. Bridge the work-family divide

Southwest is famous for encouraging its people to balance their private needs with their work roles. For example, Southwest encourages shift trading – allowing employees to vary their schedules so they can meet other family obligations.

6. Bridging silo’s with ‘boundary spanners’

Southwest bridges silos through so-called ‘boundary spanners’: people who bring together information from different operating units. A boundary spanner helps to build relationships between different parts of the organization around common goals and based on mutual respect so the organization will operate more cohesively.

7. Avoiding the blame game

Southwest puts more emphasis on learning how to avoid repeating an error than on who to blame for it. Flight delays for example, are recorded as “team delays”, effectively framing them as a collective challenge for all the ‘silo’s’ involved.

8. Highly flexible job descriptions

At Southwest everyone’s job description is clear and specific but there is an added requirement that each employee is expected to do whatever is needed to enhance the overall operation – even if that means helping out with a different type of job as required. Southwest is legendary for having pilots who are willing to help load luggage if that’s what it takes to get away on time.

9. Partnering with the unions

Southwest is the most highly unionized US airline and has exceptional labor relations. There has only ever been one six-day strike in the company’s history. The difference is that Southwest treats its unions as partners rather than adversaries.

10. Building intimate supplier relationships

Unlike common practice in the airline industry Southwest Airlines focuses on establishing close and long-term relationships with its main suppliers – an aircraft manufacturer, airport authorities and air traffic control.

Gitell emphasizes that these ten organization practices are highly complementary. In other words they form a system which only works when all ten are present and well implemented.

Creating the right environment

The second building block is an inclusive environment which emphasizes shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. Southwest uses three elements to create an environment which provides guidance and sets the direction for the 10 organizational practices to be put to work in meaningful and effective ways:

1. Shared goals

All employees share the same three straightforward goals: safety, on-time performance and creating satisfied customers.

2. Shared knowledge

Every employee understands the overall work processes. Employees also understand how their role relates to those of others.

3. Mutual respect

Mutual respect is a key element in Southwest’s culture. The contribution each person and function makes to keep the planes flying is acknowledged and respected.

Problem-solving focused communication

Southwest excels at communicating: openly, frequently, in a timely manner and with a focus on solving problems rather than assigning blame.

1. Frequent & timely communication

Southwest consistently has the fastest gate turnarounds in the US airline industry. How does it achieve that? It keeps everyone in the information loop by providing near constant communications when a plane is on the ground. Sharing information is not carried out on a haves-versus-have-nots basis, but everyone has access to everything. That allows each Southwest employee to be able to make better decisions and better judgement calls.

2. Encouraging people to speak-up

One of the most striking features of Southwest’s culture is that employees are openly encouraged to report problems as soon as they become aware of them so everyone can get involved in figuring out the best way to solve it. This sounds obvious but in real-life one of the hardest things to achieve. The reason for this is that employees have a natural tendency not to want to be seen as the bringer of bad news and negative information, even when they are only the messenger. This is why the far majority of organizations find it very hard to get to the root-cause of problems and even recognize there is a problem.

As one Southwest station manager explains: “If there’s a delay, we find out why it happened. Say there was a 10-minute delay because freight was excessive. If I’m screaming, I won’t know why it was late. The freight handlers will think, ‘He’s an idiot. If only he knew.’ Then they’ll start leaving stuff behind or they’ll just shove it in and I won’t know. If we ask, ‘Hey, what happened?’ then the next day the problem is taken care of.”

Gitell ends his analysis by underlining how the unique combination of organizational practices, fostering a clear environment and inclusive communication are working together to create an unprecedented level of consistency. Employees thus feel completely sure about what is expected of them and how they are expected to do it. Together, that is.

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