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Southwest Airlines: A Culture Worth Understanding


Southwest Airlines: A Culture Worth Understanding Prepared by Jim Messina, Ph.D Available at: The mission of Southwest Airlines Southwest ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Southwest Airlines: A Culture Worth Understanding

Southwest Airlines A Culture Worth Understanding
  • Prepared by Jim Messina, Ph.D
  • Available at

The mission of Southwest Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest
    quality of Customer Service delivered with a
    sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride,
    and Company Spirit.
  • (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Commitment to its Employees
  • We are committed to provide our Employees a
    stable work environment with equal opportunity
    for learning and personal growth. Creativity and
    innovation are encouraged for improving the
    effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all,
    Employees will be provided the same concern,
    respect, and caring attitude within the
    organization that they are expected to share
    externally with every Southwest Customer.
  • Since January 1988 (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

What Makes Southwest Unique?
  • Southwest Airlines began operating in 1971
  • Much of Southwest's success is due to the
    willingness of its leadership to be innovative
  • Southwest's primary operating philosophy is low
    fares and lots of flights
  • Southwest management has created a culture where
    employees are treated as the company's number one
  • The benefits it gives it employees, include
    profit-sharing and empowering employees to make
  • Southwest mixes in New Age management techniques,
    such as celebrating different milestones, and
    letting love play a part in running the airline
  • The company's stock ticker symbol is LUV
  • (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Organizational Structure
  • Limited emphasis on formal organizational
  • Leadership meetings are taped and shared with
  • Leadership is Leadership by example
  • Environment combines humor with responsibility
  • Worker responsibility programs
  • Team environment
  • (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Decision Making Strategies
  • Decision making is by worker/management
  • Employees are encouraged to be responsible and
    are given authority to make decisions
  • Employee input into all policies and procedures
  • All decisions are weighed against Southwests
    commitment to honesty and integrity
  • Golden Rule Behaviors/Focus on the family
  • (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Achievements
  • Southwest Airlines has become a legendary example
    of the power of servant leadership principles
  • Its achievements are impressive considering the
    competitive, cut-throat airline industry in which
    it thrives
  • Southwest Airlines has been named "one of the
    "Top Five Best Companies to Work for in America"
    by Fortune Magazine
  • It has had the fewest customer complaints 18
    years in a row as reported by the DOT Air Travel
    Consumer Report
  • The Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 31
    consecutive years, named the "2nd Most Admired
    Company in America by Fortune Magazine, and has
    an average employee turnover rate of less than
  • If you made a 10,000 investment in Southwest
    Airlines in 1972, it would be worth more than 10
    million today.
  • It has developed strong employee and customer
    loyalty - a feeling of devotion, duty and
    attachment to Southwest
  • (West, 2005)

Southwests Culture is Focused on Relationships
  • Southwests most distinctive organizational
    competency is its ability to build and sustain
    relationships characterized by
  • Shared goals
  • Shared knowledge
  • Mutual respect
  • Focus on relationships is the fundamental driver
    of leadership, culture, strategy, and
    coordination at Southwest
  • (Gittell, 2003)

Impact of Strong Relationships at Southwest
  • Employees embrace their connections with one
  • Which allows them to coordinate more effectively
    across all functions (Gittell, 2003)
  • We at Southwest Airlines foster and embrace fun,
    creativity, individuality, and empowerment. We
    love our employees. We trust our employees.
    (West, 2005)

Impact of Shared Goals at Southwest
  • Motivates individuals to move beyond what is best
    for their own narrow area of responsibility
    within their own function
  • Motivates them to to act in the best interests of
    the overall process of the organization and
    lessens competition between different functions
    within the organization (Gittell, 2003)
  • Hire People who can Laugh at themselves. (West,

Impact of Shared Knowledge at Southwest
  • Shared knowledge at Southwest is about how the
    tasks of one person or group are related to all
    other tasks
  • This enables the workforce to act with regard for
    the total process
  • This enables the workforce to be more competent,
    efficient and coordinated than their competitors
  • (Gittell, 2003)
  • The philosophy at Southwest has always been,
    Never forget where you came from. (West, 2005)

Impact of Respect for Others at Southwest
  • Encourages all employees to value the
    contributions of their colleagues
  • Encourages all employees to consider the impact
    of their actions on others
  • Reinforces the tendency to act in the best
    interests of the overall work process (Gittell,

Southwests 10 Practices for Building High
Performance Relationships
  • Leading with credibility and caring
  • Investing in frontline leadership
  • Hiring and training for relational competence
  • Using conflicts to build relationships
  • Bridging the work/family divide
  • Creating boundary spanners
  • Measuring performance broadly,
  • Keeping jobs flexible at the boundaries
  • Establishing partnerships with the unions
  • Building relationships with suppliers
  • (Gittel, 2003)

Credibility Caring Key to Southwests Culture
  • At Southwest, credibility and caring are the two
    critical ingredients of effective leadership
  • Credibility and caring are the ability to inspire
    trust and the ability to inspire in employees the
    belief that their leaders care deeply about their
  • Southwests top management team have gained the
    complete trust of managers in the field, and of
    frontline employees, by being forthright and
    consistent in their messages to employees
  • (Gittel, 2003)

Role of Leadership in Southwests Culture
  • Leadership at Southwest is understood as a
    process that can take place at any level of the
  • Southwest believes that leadership at the front
    line can play a critical role in organizational
    success so it has more supervisors per frontline
    employee than any other airline in the industry,
    despite the fact that many think the organization
    is flat and team-based
  • It is an approach that directly contradicts many
    contemporary management thinkers who argue that
    supervisors tend to perpetuate bureaucracy and,
    thus, get in the way (Gittel,2003)
  • New leaders at Southwest are told, Dont try to
    learn your job. Your first priority is to get to
    know your people!
  • (West, 2005)

Role of Supervisors in Southwests Culture
  • Southwest supervisors are not obstacles to
    coordination among frontline employees, but play
    a valuable role in strengthening coordination
    through day-to-day coaching, counseling, and
    participation in frontline work, even baggage
  • Supervisors go far beyond measuring performance
    and disciplining bad apples and focus on
    problem solving, advising, and providing support,
    encouragement, and recognition to individual
  • Supervisors view their subordinates as internal
    customers who deserve help in doing their jobs
  • (Gittel, 2003)

Role of Relational Competence at Southwest
  • Teamwork at Southwest is based on relational
    competencethe ability to relate effectively
    with others
  • Relational competence is a critical ingredient of
    organizational success, though it tends to be
    undervalued in the world of work
  • Other organizations usually underestimate the
    importance of relational competence, especially
    when it comes to people who perform highly
    skilled jobs
  • Often excellent performers are hired, but they
    cannot integrate their work effectively with the
    work of others which results in undermining of
    the organizations goals, which does not happen
    at Southwest (Gittell, 2003)
  • If you live by the Golden Rule, empowering your
    people do the right thing, how can you go wrong?
    (West, 2005)

Get and Train Relationally Competent Individuals
  • Southwest goes out of its way to hire those who
    will contribute to the overall operation of the
    airlineelitists need not apply
  • In recruiting pilots or mechanics they obtain the
    best who are also team players and able to relate
    well with other functional groups
  • They then train acculturate newly hired-most of
    whom come from other, more functionally divided
    airlines (Gittell,2003)
  • A candidate who thinks he can snow a recruiter
    during the interview may have already eliminated
    himself because hes proven to other employees
    that he isnt a fit for the system. (West.

Get and Train Relationally Competent Individuals
  • Southwests training is geared toward fostering
    relational competence, as well as functional
  • New staff learn about the overall work process
    and understand where they fit in and how their
    job relates to and supports jobs of coworkers
  • Those not able to catch on to Southwests
    perspective are let go (Gittell, 2003)
  • We put every possible support in place to help
    trainees succeed, and we work with those who are
    truly sincere and put forth the effort. (West,

Training at Southwest
  • "We often say that Southwest hires for attitude
    and trains for aptitude. However, besides
    teaching technical aptitude, we also provide
    Leadership training, and our Managers in Training
    (MIT) program is a part of that learning
  • Colleen Barrett , President Southwest Airlines
  • (West, 2005)

Handling Conflict to Learn How to Improve Culture
  • In the airline industry, where highly
    interdependent work processes span multiple
    functions, not only are conflicts the norm, they
    are likely to have highly intensified effects
  • People in different functions occupy different
    thought worlds that make shared understanding
  • Although many believe conflicts are destructive
    and to be avoided, Southwest believes
    constructive aspects exist, so actively
    identifying and resolving conflicts is a means of
    strengthening relationships that inspire
    effective coordination
  • (Gittell, 2003)

Incorporating Personal Lives into its Culture
  • Traditional organizational practices often demand
    that, while at work, employees disconnect
    themselves from the aspects of their identity
    related to family, spirituality, personal pain
    and tragedy, and race or ethnicity. As a result
    individual attitudes and performance often
  • Southwest blurs the boundary between work and
    personal life and strives to enhance rather than
    undermine employee ties to family and community
  • Southwest openly recognizes deaths, births, and
    other major events in the lives of employees and
    their families, and has established a
    Catastrophic Fund to provide aid when needed
    (Gittell, 2003)
  • Southwest Airlines does many things well. But
    one of the things it does best is taking care of
    its people in the bad times, as well as the
    good. (West, 2005)

Incorporating Personal Lives into its Culture
  • Culture Committees were begun in the early 1990s
    to ensure that the companys rapid growth would
    not result in barriers between functions. Each
    station has its own committee to organize
    fund-raisers, parties, and ways for employees to
    give back to the community. These events bring
    family and other personal relationships into the
    workplace in a highly visible way.
  • Southwest has a long tradition of bridging the
    work/family divide by seeking to accommodate the
    needs of families through flexible scheduling and
    ensuring that managers do not devote too much
    time to the job at the expense of their families.
  • (Gittell, 2003)

Using Agents as Boundary Spanners
  • Although many different functions play a critical
    role in coordinating flight departures, the
    operations agents role is especially central
  • An agent is at the center of communications among
    the various groups working to unload a plane,
    service it, reload it, and send it on its way
  • An agent is responsible for bringing together and
    reconciling conflicting agendas among the various
    functions, regarding passenger needs, commitments
    to freight and mail customers, and the
    requirements of flight safety
  • Essentially, operations agents act as boundary
    spanners, collecting, filtering, translating,
    interpreting, and disseminating information
    across organizational boundaries
  • Effective boundary spanners do more than just
    process information they also build relationships
    of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual
    respect as a means of facilitating work
  • (Gittell, 2003)

Using Agents as Boundary Spanners
  • Since the mid 1980s, many airlines tried to
    reduce the cost of this function by reducing the
    number of agents, increasing the number of
    flights they are assigned to, and relying more
    heavily on computer technology to coordinate
    departures-quality and detail of communication is
    not very high this way
  • Southwest has chosen opposite tack and is unique
    its operations agents are assigned to lead only
    one departure at a time so that they can
    interact, face to face, with every party involved
    in the flight departure process
  • By developing a web of human relationships across
    boundaries, Southwest operations agents are able
    to create a broader sense of shared identity and
    vision among previously divided functions,
    creating more opportunities for collective
  • (Gittell, 2003)

Cross-functional Performance is Measured
  • Cross-functional performance measures that
    Southwest uses encourage employees to focus on
    learning, rather than on blaming, when things go
    wrong and, as a result, bolster relationships of
    shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual
  • Cross-functional approach to performance
    measurement is associated with higher levels of
    relational coordination, which, in turn,
    contributes to improved flight departure
    performance, faster turnaround times, greater
    staffing productivity, fewer lost bags, and fewer
    customer complaints. (Gittell, 2003)
  • Insist your employees live by a doing more with
    less philosophy. (West, 2005)

What do we learn from Southwest?
  • The primary lesson is that though relationships
    are relatively soft organizational factors and
    therefore tempting to neglect under challenging
    conditions, strong working relationships allow
    organizations to move beyond the traditional
    trade-offs between efficiency and quality and to
    achieve higher levels of both, simultaneously.
  • Relationships are not just a nice addition to the
    hard factors, but are powerful drivers of
    organizational performance, if they are
    consistently integrated into organizational
    practices over the long term.
  • (Gittell, 2003) (West, 2005) (Freiberg
    Freiberg, 1996)

  • Freiberg, K. Freiberg, J. (1996) Nuts!
    Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and
    Personal Success. New York Broadway
  • Gittell, J.H. (2003). The Southwest Airlines Way
    Using Power of Relationships to Achieve High
    Performance. New York McGraw-Hill
  • West, L.G. (2005). Lessons in Loyalty How
    Southwest Airlines Does It - An Insider's View.
    Dallas, TX CornerStone Leadership Institute

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