American Airlines and Employee Input

NPR : American Airlines ‘Insources’ Maintenance Work

Thanks to my friend Amber for passing this along. It’s too bad that management can’t empower the customer-facing staff at American the same way, which would undoubtedly improve their morale, as well.

In the NPR piece (no transcript, you have to listen), they point out:

  • After 2004 financial troubles (a burning platform), the maintenance workers union and management realized they had to work together at their Tulsa facility.
  • The 6,000 employees agreed to big cuts in pay, benefits, and vacation, but the tradeoff was that they would be given “equal say” in the running of the operation.
  • Two years into it, the company is a “true believer” of having a workforce working “with” management instead of against it.
  • The union leader pointed out that employees aren’t just complaining about management anymore, they’re talking like business people.
  • Management wanted to cut the time required to overhaul an airplane in half, they promised the union that nobody would lose their job.
  • The workers designed a model, top to bottom, completely redesigning the way work was done, cutting the time from 25 days to 13 days, cutting the cost by 55%.

Do you still think management needs to come up with all of the answers? Think of the knowledge, ingenuity, and problem solving skills that your employees have, if you’ll only turn them loose.

It sort of seems like a shame that management felt like they had to extract such big pay cuts first. It amazes me that the American workers would rally in the face of such a loss. I guess part of the motivation was the fear that the whole place would get shut down. Not the ideal way to motivate people, but I guess it has worked. It will be interesting to see how the environment holds up in the long term, if management will further squeeze them during the next downturn or if they’ll continue to cooperate.

In a twist of outsourcing, South American airlines are now flying planes up to Tulsa to have maintenance done by American’s Tulsa workers. Amazing. Congratulations to American’s maintenance employees.

There was an earlier article here on the blog about United Airlines and their lean partnership with the union.


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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