01 December 2007

Working Relationships

Southwest Airlines has a low-cost, no-frills reputation. The airline has turned a profit every year since 1973, has yet to lay off employees, and posted the best on-time performance, the fewest complaints, and the best baggage handling of any airline 1992 through 1996.

Jody Hoffer Gittell’s The Southwest Airlines Way compares Southwest with other airlines and concludes Southwest’s leanness and profitability stem from its investment in relationships.

Identifying the Challenges
Southwest’s point-to-point system requires maintenance and other resources be spread out instead of concentrated at hubs. And shorter flights mean planes spend more time on the ground.

Southwest overcomes these obstacles with quick “turnarounds,” which depend on pilots, flight attendants, ticket agents, and ground support team members communicating and working together.

Building the Team
In her study, Gittell identified 10 ways Southwest cultivates “shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.”
  • Show credible leadership by sharing accurate information and working to make the organization succeed.
  • Hire enough front-line leadership so that supervisors have time to coach others.
  • Hire individuals with the relational skills to interact well with coworkers.
  • When conflicts arise, encourage resolution between parties.
  • Recognize employee success and sorrow, and allow flexibility for employees to keep family commitments.
  • Create positions from which a person can coordinate contributions from different departments.
  • Measure overall outcomes instead of assigning blame to particular individuals.
  • Give specific job descriptions, and add, “whatever is necessary to make the operation succeed.”
  • Invite employees’ unions to share in reaching organizational goals.
  • Develop problem-solving relationships with suppliers.
Maintaining Relationships
Southwest’s ability to avoid laying off employees after the 2001 terrorist attacks depended on its conservative financial strategy and resulting cash reserve and low debt-equity ratio.

Southwest has become well-known in the last 5 or 10 years, but the airline continues to grow 10 to 15 percent yearly, as it has through most of its history. Because of the priority Southwest places on relationships, Gittell says it had the goodwill and organizational resilience to bounce back.

Southwest cofounder and CEO from 1978 to 2001, Herb Kelleher, told Entrepreneur, “Competitors have tried and failed to copy us because they cannot copy our people.”

This article first appeared in Character First's business bulletin series 3. It is reprinted here with permission from Character First and Strata Leadership.

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