“You Built It”. October 2021

Posted by jlubans on October 14, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Southwest Airline Engine (and plane) over Rocky Mountains, west of Denver, CO, USA. January 9 2021

What with Southwest’s meltdown in recent days with hundreds of canceled and delayed flights I thought it a good idea to recycle my most recent Southwest story, “You Built It”. It appears below under the bar.
How did this latest fiasco happen?
Some say it was the weather and flight control, the FAA.
Others, that it was a shortage of staff from flight crews to ramp teams to reservation agents.
A bold few suggest it is an informal work stoppage due to SWAs compulsory covid vaccinations, no exceptions even for those with immunity and those with sincere religious objections.
Many vehemently respond, “Not so and don’t you dare say it!”
I’ve written and taught about Southwest; they are one of my most go-to examples of an outstanding, democratized organization. Their customer service is legend, or at least it was until this past week.
There is a mystery.
Why did Southwest promote early retirement and long leaves during the plague, reducing staff by hundreds if not thousands? Southwest took in millions from the government’s Payroll Protection Plan which was designed for keeping people ready to roll once the epidemic diminished.
And, why did SWA expand its footprint and add destinations during the epidemic?
All summer SWAs leadership team has been playing musical chairs. That uncertainty of who is in charge and for how long may contribute to the breakdowns.
Herb Kelleher, co-founder and Southwest’s CEO for decades, told me, no worries, “It’s in the DNA” when I asked him what would happen to Southwest’s vaunted reputation when his leadership ended.
Herb died in early 2019. Colleen C. Barrett, his right-hand woman, continues as President Emeritus but is no longer working her usual long hours.
Is Herb Keller spinning in his grave or maybe, just maybe, it’s Southwest’s maverick tradition that’s rearing up among its pilots and other workers against a compulsory vaccine, a last straw leading to a "Let's go Brandon" moment.
I wonder.
UPDATE: Southwest pilots' union asks court to delay vaccine mandate.
Here starts my essay, You Built It from January 2021:
Early in January of this new year I was waiting for my return flight from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.
I sat across from my departure gate – just waiting and looking at the passers-by of which there were surprisingly many streaming past, all masked.
I was on a SWA dedicated concourse – full of arriving and departing SWA travelers and crews - so it was not unusual that there was a SWA flight crew sitting nearby. I was by myself having a take-away glass of wine (thank you virus!) .
One of the flight crew, a man, asked me if I was going to Spokane, the destination at the next gate and the one his crew were working. That got the conversation rolling.
I asked him about the last president of the airline, Colleen Barret, if she was still working several hours a week in spite of her retirement. He said no, she was less and less involved.
Then I mentioned my meeting Herb Kelleher (1931-2019), the co-founder of the airline and how welcomed I felt sitting in his office. From the first second, it was like visiting with an old friend.
This was in Dallas, Texas, which is where SWA is headquartered.
I mentioned my asking Herb – there was nothing of the “Mister” about him – about SWA’s culture of excellent customer service. I asked if the underlying values would change on his retirement.
“No”, he said, “it’s in the DNA.”
I related that story to the flight attendant, “He said that, did he?” he queried.
“He sure did.”
Hearing that, he pulled out his phone and said he had a picture to show me.
It was one of him in ramp agent* gear sitting next to Herb – in a suit - chatting away.
In other words, that’s the CEO hobnobbing with one of the workers.
He told Herb - the CEO - how appreciative he, the ramp agent, was of the “empire” Herb had built – the Southwest Airlines empire, the company.
Herb responded, “I didn’t build it, you did.”
So, here we have one of the workers with a picture of the CEO on his phone. How many workers do you know who carry around a picture of their CEO?
Just think about it.
And think about Herb’s perspective about who’s in charge, who’s responsible for SWAs success, about who should get the credit.
*We know what flight attendants do.
The lesser known “Ramp Agents” guide the plane in to and out of the gate, help get passengers off and on the plane, and unload luggage and cargo and make sure the luggage gets to the right person. They also re-provision the plane – water, snacks, drinks, paper goods.
And, on January 9th they de-iced my plane before we took off for Oregon.
Some ramp teamers, like the flight attendant I met in Denver, aspire to become flight attendants.
See my “No Bean Bags Here” essay.
Also there are chapters on Southwest leadership and culture in my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle (see below).

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And, don’t forget my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright photo and text John Lubans 2021

The Freedom to Excel. 2021

Posted by jlubans on October 07, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

20130731-Stakhanov work.jpg
Caption: Work like Stakhanov! (While Nazis had better tailors, Communist propaganda was equal to that of the Fascists).

My essay on Stakhanovism from July 31, 2013 re-appears below under the bar.
Stalin claimed this “Hero of Socialist Labour” would engender “a new wave of Socialist emulation”. In other words, recognizing and celebrating Stakhanov, the Herculean coal miner, would boost production by all his wannabes.
After all, who wouldn’t want a smart apartment (with a bathroom) in Moscow along with multiple photo-ops with Uncle Joe?
No doubt Stakhanov was an innovative and prodigious worker, but using him as an example probably did little to boost Soviet innovation or productivity regardless of the endless propaganda and fake claims made by the Soviets and the media here and abroad.
Collectivism, with a few exceptions, did not work and its products were often of abysmal quality.
Back in the USA, America’s Taylorism (aka Scientific Management) did lead to huge production gains and to improved pay for workers. Unions had a helpful role in this happening.
Henry Ford’s production lines also lead to significant economic and societal gains.
The jury remains out on a new concept, dubbed “Bezosism” which is practiced at Amazon warehouses.
Workers are not only time-and-motion studied, they are surveilled every minute and production goals are monitored. Warehouse workers partner with robots and, like the latter, are highly regimented and controlled.
Pay is good, but the repetitive work standing in one place is exhausting and uninspiring or so some claim.
Here starts my “blast from the past” from 2013:
Next month will record another anniversary of the Stakhanovism movement. In 1935 a Ukrainian miner (in the Soviet) hewed 102 tons of coal in a single shift, 14 times the norm. His name was Aleksei G. Stakhanov. Stakhanovism was communism’s answer to capitalism’s piece-rate. Soon after, at Dictator Stalin’s merciless prodding, other industries followed suit with exemplary workers being heralded and rewarded – and elaborate claims put forth of how socialism was outstripping capitalism.
But resentment set in, as it often does when management exploits a worker’s exceeding productivity norms. If a Stakhanovite can produce three times the norm, well, they autocratically rule, that will be everyone’s new quota!
There was an expected jealousy over the rewards (a car, travel, visits with Mr. Stalin, lingerie and perfume) for the Heroes of Labor, but the new quotas profoundly embittered workers. In the Soviet, protesting the new norms would get you a trip to a labor camp or a bullet in the head.
There’s a bitter, if comical, ballad* by Vladimir Vysotsky, about a worker who hates the new quotas foisted on him by his mine’s Stakhanovite.
The Hero is trapped in a cave-in. As the rescue team descends into the mine, the unhappy worker sings to his fellow miners:
“Our grief, everyone’s grief, is one
and the same.
If we dig him out, again he’ll start filling three quotas,
Again, he’ll start giving the nation coal and giving it to
Us, too.
So, brothers, in order not to work too hard, let’s take it
Easy now – one for all all for one.”

As you can tell, Stakhanovites or America’s “rate-busters” have earned a considerable enmity among their fellow workers.
Well, doing a great job should not result in loathing. You should have the freedom to excel.
I recall one very effective library worker who greatly exceeded established norms. Instead of inflicting her productivity on everyone else, we looked at how she managed to do so much more.
The Soviets could have done likewise when Stakhanov set his record. He was a hard worker but what enabled him to produce so much more was that he was a very smart worker.
The Soviets should have celebrated the teamwork that resulted in Stakhanov’s record setting. Instead of drilling and shoring up as he went along all by himself, Stakhanov drilled while three other workers followed and shored up the mine – that was how he did so much more.
My point is that some of us are naturally quicker, brighter, and more able to discern, to distinguish, and to do certain kinds of work faster than the rest of the population. Few of us can run a 100 yards or meters in under ten seconds. Those that can have some capacity that the rest of us do not.
I’ll never run that fast, but I can learn and improve my speed from the faster person’s achievement. Their speed is probably more than just the snazzy spikes and kangaroo skin uppers!
I can look at the sprinter’s stride, her stance at the start, how he finishes, how she trains, and what he does just before the starter's gun goes off.
When others develop new ways of doing a job we should be free to use those ideas. Freedom at work includes the option to be a rate buster with impunity.
Getting back to my effective worker – our library’s Stakhanov – we did look at what she was doing and made those ideas generally available.
It never occurred to us to even imply new quotas. We trusted that people who were doing similar work would want to improve. Many applied her ideas and we got good results. Word got out about our productivity and I offered to share the ideas.
My impression was that some mangers at other libraries were doing the Soviet thing: If X can do this faster, then you WILL, too.
They missed the point. If you give people freedom to invent and to innovate, you then must share the results without inducing fear.
The higher production – if it is to be had - will follow. This is when managers need to “let go,” quit hammering the obvious message, and trust that good people will do what is right. Most workers want to do a good job.

*SOURCE: “In Soviet, Eager Beaver's Legend Works Overtime,”
By SERGE SCHMEMANN Special to The New York Times
New York Times, Aug 31, 1985; pg. 2.

Inflation buster! 20% off Through December 31 2021
No supply-chain issues here!
My books are printed and shipped in the USA, so when you buy my latest book of workplace fables you can expect speedy delivery. Something to keep in mind as the gift giving season looms.
And, of course, there's no memory chip shortages for printed books!

And, don’t forget my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright all text by John Lubans 2013 & 2021