Lead with LUV, Ken Blanchard and Colleen Barrett
The LUV in the title is a play on the New York Stock Exchange symbol for Southwest Airlines which began its service out of Love Field in Dallas in 1971.
From the fourth quarter of 1976 Southwest paid dividends to theirShareholders and has never had an unprofitable year since. The average US airline has managed to pay dividends only 16times over the same period.
In addition to executing the same, solid, sound strategy, year after year, the company’s success has undoubtedly been a function of their unique and sustained culture.
The book records conversations between the prolific author and management trainer, Ken Blanchard and Coleen Barrett the President Emerita of Southwest. The topic of the conversation is the Southwest culture best known for its caring attitude and zany sense of fun. My interest in this otherwise twee book lies in their answer to the question: how do you get staff to live the values, really live the values?
Southwest’s formal mission statement is hardly exceptional and reads like so many others: “dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.” The values that underpin this mission statement are the “Warrior Spirit,”a “Servant’s Heart,” and a “Fun-LUVing” attitude.
What sets Southwest apart is their (realistic) expectation that this will be lived out by every staff member, every day.
An example of the manifestation of the Warrior Spirit is the time it takes to turn a plane around. The company only earns when the planes are flying so long periods on the runway are a significant cost. They set a goal of 10 to 15 minute turnarounds which requires a coordinated activity that lookslike an Indianapolis 500 pit stop.
Barrett recalls how as a young assistant to company founder Herb Kelleher she had to get a large number of letters out by the next day. On that day everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. At 8 o’clock that night she still had allthe letters to be re-addressed. Without recrimination or hesitation, Keheller assisted her until four in the morning, licking stamps and sealing envelopes. He was a perfect model of the “Servant’s Heart,” the passion for helping others.
“Fun LUV-ing” is founded on the conviction that people need to enjoy their work life as much as their home life. “When I first started with the company, everyone said, “Hey, have fun, have fun. The people who interviewed me – everyone,” recalls a staff member.
Southwest celebrates everything imaginable – staff weddings, first births, retirement parties, achievements, and more. They fundraise for staff who are “down on their luck.” They have“Winning Spirit Awards,” and numerous other employee recognition programs.
The book contains a selection of letters from passengers about their experiences on various flights. Letters chosen by a company’s President are hardly reliable examples of a company’s performance, but these correlate with what I have gleaned from many other sources.
One letter describes how a flight attendant, before take-off,announced to passengers that instead of passing out packets of peanuts and crackers, he was going to place a pile in the aisle. When the plane takes off the packets would be distributed by gravity! As the snacks slid down the aisle, the passengers, grabbed, laughed and passed packets to those who couldn’t reach them. The letter concludes “I only wish I could have videotaped the rest of that flight attendant’s performancebecause it was better than many of the shows I’ve seen in comedy clubs.”
A mother wrote of how excited her unaccompanied 11 year old son was when he was taken by the pilot to have lunch with the pilot and cockpit crew during a delayed flight.
Another letter thanked a flight attendant, Sandra, who took the time to recognize the writer’s husband, on the last part of his journey home after serving in Iraq.
Sandra had thanked him for his service and asked everyone to do the same by allowing him to exit the plane first. On disembarkation the ground staff gave him a bottle of champagne and more thanks.
These are all unscripted, “unauthorized” initiatives of staff members. What is notable is not that they happened, but that this type of behavior is normative in Southwest.
Southwest is not a soft environment. Anyone who does not fit into the culture is asked to leave. There is no latitude on that score, because they recognize the cost of non-compliance to the culture. Cultures are very hard to build and very easy to destroy. From the start of the engagement of a staff member, the interview, applicants are observed for the skills, aptitude and attitude needed to live the culture and values. Even their sense of humour is assessed.
When a customer wrote to complain about the spontaneous joviality of the airline staff, the company didn’t send a reply promising to get the staff to “tone it down.” Instead they sent the customer a note saying “We’ll miss you.”
During Desert Storm, when fuel costs were high, employees came up with a program called “Fuel from the Heart,” that provided a means by which staff could sign up to have a certain amount of money withdrawn from each pay cheque to help the company with the cost of fuel. Southwest believes that if the company keeps people well informed and lets them use their intelligence, they will amaze you with how they can help manage costs.
MacClane, an aircraft mechanic from Phoenix, is quoted as saying, “I always wanted to work for Southwest Airlines…. Ihad to wait five years to get on (staff) with them but it was well worth the wait.” The value the book lies in its description of a corporation about which an employee can say that.
Readability ?Light +--- Serious
Insights?? High --+-- Low
Practical? High --+-- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy