“You Built It”. October 2021

Posted by jlubans on October 14, 2021

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

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