As colleagues who’ve studied Southwest and different airline methods, operations, and labor and worker relations and labored with corporations and unions to construct productive labor-management partnerships, we’re dismayed by Southwest’s colossal meltdown over the vacations that produced chaos and hardships for hundreds of passengers.
We had touted Southwest as a mannequin for different corporations and labor organizations, and rightly so. For a few years, Southwest has been persistently the most worthwhile airline within the business, ranked at or close to the highest in buyer satisfaction, excessive on lists of the greatest corporations within the nation to work for, and has lengthy been essentially the most extremely unionized agency within the business. However the large cancellations over the vacation season counsel to us that Southwest has misplaced its approach on enterprise and expertise methods, labor relations and worker collaboration — three areas the place it initially excelled.
The corporate can work its approach again to the highest of the business, however provided that it sees these are interrelated points that must be mounted in an built-in trend.
Southwest’s point-to-point community mannequin lengthy served as a aggressive benefit, with the power to get individuals the place they wish to go with out going via a hub. Their fast turnaround instances on the gate have been important for providing these flights at a comparatively low value whereas paying their staff effectively. However a point-to-point community with fast turnaround instances is extra weak to disruption than the standard hub-and-spoke community.
Southwest has been capable of handle this tightly coupled interdependent community very effectively through the years attributable to a unprecedented funding in its individuals and in optimistic union-management relations, leading to a capability to help its enterprise mannequin by turning round planes from touchdown to takeoff sooner than its rivals. It has carried out this via relational coordination — teamwork characterised by shared targets, shared information and mutual respect, and supported by well timed, correct, problem-solving communication.
In different phrases, for Southwest to succeed with its uniquely profitable enterprise mannequin, a tradition of collaboration isn’t just a superb factor to have, however a requirement that should be nurtured repeatedly. However our observations counsel that Southwest right now has considerably decrease ranges of relational coordination than up to now, making it tough if not not possible to run a quick-turnaround point-to-point community within the face of an enormous disruption.
Our analysis signifies that an up-to-date, shared info system can strengthen coordination if carried out in partnership with staff and is knowledgeable by their experience. Sadly, Southwest has been gradual to put money into automation through the years. Union leaders have been calling for an improve to the corporate’s IT system and staffing practices, however up to now firm leaders have solely promised to take action. The time for guarantees with out actions has run out.
These components are additional exacerbated by tense labor-management relations. Whereas Southwest has been union-friendly since its founding, labor relations have turn out to be acrimonious in recent times, partly due to workers shortages and the outsourcing of upkeep work. We now have heard clear statements by the pilots’ union for a while that the tradition of the corporate has essentially shifted away from worker voice and engagement.
Hopefully, this would be the wake-up name for Southwest leaders to handle all three dimensions of the issue in a coordinated approach. In reality, we see no approach out of this mess except they do study that the way in which to replace their IT system is to combine it with their work systems, ones that depend on shut coordination of labor groups and scheduling. And the one approach to make sure that this occurs is to have interaction staff and their union representatives with their technical workers (IT and others) at every stage of expertise technique growth, implementation and steady enchancment processes.
This, in fact, requires a labor relations technique that helps worker and union engagement and unions that see the worth in rebuilding relationships of mutual respect, belief and partnership. Rebuilding partnerships is rarely simple however might be carried out if the events first develop a joint imaginative and prescient and dedication to take action, put money into coaching administration and union leaders in addition to front-line staff in teamwork and coordination expertise, and share in the advantages of improved efficiency if and when it’s achieved.
Jody Hoffer Gittell is a professor at The Heller Faculty for Social Coverage and Administration at Brandeis College and creator of “The Southwest Airways Means.” John August is this system director of the Cornell ILR Faculty Scheinman Institute. Thomas A. Kochan is the Put up-Tenure George Maverick Bunker Professor on the MIT Sloan Faculty of Administration. He’s coauthor of “Up within the Air: How Airways Can Enhance Efficiency by Participating Their Staff”. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning Information.
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