Employee Driven Improvement at Southwest


    Seconds count for Southwest | Dallas Morning News

    Here was a nice article from the Dallas paper a week ago about kaizen-type activities at Southwest Airlines. It's not called Lean, nor does it reference Toyota, but it sounds like Lean. It's always nice to see management taking that approach with employees, since most of the airline industry seems to treat employees like a cost, rather than an asset (or real human beings). Related item, Ralph Bernstein wrote about Delta and respect for people in a recent Lean Insider blog post.

    Back to Southwest, from the article, instead of hiring outside consultants, they:

    Southwest, one of the world's most efficient airlines, has been quietly using its own experts to figure how to be more efficient.

    This month, it will bring Operational Excellence – or Rx for short – to Dallas Love Field.

    Not sure how “Rx” is short for Operational Excellence, but I like the imagery — let's diagnose what is wrong and let's work together on improving things.

    Before trying Rx, it sounds like Southwest tried going down the conventional cost-cutting route, “squeezing” people and costs.

    Jim Higgins, an airline analyst with Soleil Securities in New York, says the industry did so much cost-cutting after 2001 that finding major cost savings could be difficult.

    “Southwest is already so efficient that they know there are no home runs left,” Mr. Higgins said.

    “They're going to be looking for every needle in every haystack.”

    Doesn't that remind you of Toyota? They're already really good, but they are still driven to find incremental improvements. That sounds like kaizen to me, even if Higgins might be disparaging the improvement efforts. Kaizen isn't about hitting “home runs.” American (and Western) management LOVES swinging for the fences. Kaizen is about hitting lots and lots of singles and making small improvements every day.

    Southwest employees spend time observing and mapping the actual processes and daily events:

    At the heart of the Rx program is collecting and crunching data, tracking performance by the hour rather than by the month.

    Southwest employees are being asked to consider every moment of their day, from how long customers wait in line when they arrive to how many minutes it takes for a passenger to board a plane after the last passenger from the previous flights gets off.

    Operations experts call the Rx program “process mapping,” where tasks are measured and analyzed in an attempt to improve productivity. It's something Southwest had never done before.

    “In spite of ourselves, we were very successful in these complex operations,” said Matt Hafner, who heads the Rx program.

    It sounds like Southwest isn't being arrogant about their success. They aren't saying they are perfect or that they don't have room to improve.

    Do all employees feel the same way?

    For some employees, the program has sparked anxiety, said Charles Cerf, president of Local 555 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents Southwest's ramp and cargo workforce.

    “Employees already feel like we're the most productive in the industry, so it's difficult to do more,” Mr. Cerf said. “Sometimes we worry that customer service could be sacrificed in an effort to be more productive.”

    The Lean philosophy (and again, it's clear that it's the model that Southwest is following) would not push you to sacrifice quality or service in the name of efficiency.

    There are plenty of details and examples in the article, so check it out.

    Here's one nice example of a simple, low-tech visual management signal:

    Problem: Customer service agents could have a full flight plus several passengers with special needs to take care of in a short time

    Solution: Employees post color-coded magnets above the entrance to the jet bridge to signal co-workers who pass by that they may need help.

    Result: In Phoenix, on-time performance improved by 11 percent.

    [Photo courtesy Southwest Airlines, “Lone Star One”]

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. Hi Mark,

      that’s a great posting, as it shows that there is movement in the LEAN society even though the broader picture isn’t called LEAN.

      Southwest is a superior example of a company that values their employees as the most valuable assest. Communication is one of the main pillars of excellence and -in my eyes- is very well a main part of LEAN culture as well (in the sense most of us know it).

      To get further into the Southwest thinking have a look at “The Southwest Airlines Way” by Jody Gittell that shows a fine pictures how Southwest achieved its standing today.

      Best regards from Leipzig and keep this excellent source of information up.


    2. Actually, there IS a quality sacrifice (for the sake of productivity) underway at Southwest Airlines.

      But first, let me correct something – Rx stood for “Redefining Excellence,” not “Operational Excellence” and has since been re-monikered A.P.I., for “Airport Performance Improvement,” due to the negative impression Rx tended to give off.

      The goal at the heart of Rx is to do more with less, which invariably leads to a decrease in the quality of the product. When people become burnt out and jaded, they become less productive.

      So while you may see an improvement in the short-term, as the workforce ages, these jaded attitudes permeate the culture, and productivity and quality take a nosedive. And when you’re an 86% unionized company, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.


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