It's About The People, Stupid

It has happened again. Another horror story of an airline leaving customers in miserable conditions for hours on the tarmac. This time, however, it happened multiple times over a 28 (!!) hour period.

According to the Jerusalem Post article, United Airlines Flight 84 from Newark to Tel Aviv in June:

  • was delayed without explanation multiple times
  • when explanations were given, they were patently false
  • required the police to come on board to remove the pilot from the cockpit
  • gave minimal food vouchers ($21 per person) for a day+ delay
  • gave passengers vouchers for a hotel that was half an hour away from the terminal
  • didn't bother to arrange rooms at the hotel for the passengers

The list goes on.

This gives a whole new meaning to the term "Epic Fail" (which should be "Epic Failure"; the age of 140 SMS / Twitter characters seems to have mauled our English language).

The real question is, how did this happen? In a major hub airport, with thousands of staff and management, and not during some unusual event like a strike or snowstorm, how did trained staff with advanced computer systems, with apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, cause so many to suffer so much at the hands of so few?

The answer, something that appears to have eluded the United executive team, is that the system that failed here is not the computers, or the flights, or the crew scheduling computers. The system that failed here is the people... and the solution lies with the people.

The greatest leaders rarely are lawyers or engineers (says this former engineer). The reasons are simple:

  1. The world never is predictable
  2. People are driven by emotion

Engineers, on the one hand, really like predictability, well-designed systems, data, calculations. Lawyers, on the other hand, like to manage every circumstance, mitigate every risk, contract every situation. You cannot blame them; it is how they are trained, because that is their job.

Let us posit that the series of breakdowns that led to UA84's June misery were not entirely predictable. That's fine; the world works that way. Let's also posit that the people behind the counters and in the United operations centres really want to be able to help customers. Not a single one likes watching people stuck in a plane on the tarmac, or sleeping on floors, or hungry. They really want to get these people to their destinations on time, safely and content.

The gap, then, is recognizing that these employees want to help but cannot. If you cannot predict every situation, then your employee manual should give a very simple two-step process:

  1. For all situations that the processes or systems in place solve the problem, use them.
  2. For all others, use your own judgment, and trust that we back you

If you read Gordon Bethune's classic turnaround story about Continental, "From Worst to First", one message recurs time and again: trust your employees. Gordon's number one insight in turning around failing Continental was that employees wanted to help customers, wanted to be part of the best service business possible, wanted to take pride in their company. They just needed the authority and backing to do so. Once he gave it to them, all he had to do was focus on keeping the airline afloat short-term while the employees made it first class for the long haul.

United and Continental have deteriorated rapidly, not because of its employees, not because of its IT systems, but because management no longer views its job as making customers satisfied through happy employees.

In the end, as in the beginning, it is always about the people.