The Southwest Airlines Way – Building relationships that work!


South West CultureWhat lies at the root of Southwest Airlines Culture is the strong focus on relationships. The Southwest framework of positive relationships is; Shared goals, Shared knowledge and Mutual respect. This is named ‘relational coordination’ and is found to enhance both quality and efficiency in equal measures. In a hospital studied, relational coordination created: 31% reduction hospital stays, 22% higher patient quality of care, improved clinical outcomes.

Southwest has 10 practices for building high performance relationships:

  1. Lead with Credibility and Caring – This starts at the top with Herb Kelleher (founder and former CEO) and Colleen Barrett (President and COO) who make themselves available at every level and have done so by building credibility (with straight talk) and showing consistently that they genuinely care about employees and their issues. They are both available to all staff at all times.
  2. Invest in frontline leadership – Supervisor ratios are high at Southwest, giving them more time with individual staff and more ability to work alongside the team members. This is a key element in building high functioning relationships.
  3. Hire and train for relational competence – A pilot who was rude to an assistant before an interview simply didn’t get the job at Southwest. Communication skills out way job skills and play a large part in the culture that exists. It’s drilled into new staff that the outcome for the business always comes first when making decisions. This creates real teamwork, in that individual’s egos are put to the side.
  4. Use conflicts to build relationships – At Southwest, conflicts are lifted up, examined and used as a learning experience for multiple teams. They are expected and anticipated and dealt with positively to create positive outcomes.
  5. Bridge the work/ family divide – Southwest recognised the positive energy created from good family and community relationships, and bring that style of relationship to the workplace with genuine caring. They remember special events and ensure family milestones are celebrated and encourage staff to really be themselves at work. It’s by feeling they can be authentic, and still accepted into the Southwest family that they truly care about the outcomes for the business.   
  6. Create boundary spanners – The person responsible for collecting, filtering, translating and disseminating knowledge across organisational boundaries at Southwest is also empowered to build relationships with shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. Southwest also has a ‘no layoff’ policy’. When times are tough they have significant financial reserves to get them through keeping their staff and that relationship core to their values. Observations after 9/11 were that after job cuts in other airlines they “were shocked by the collapse of employee morale!” Southwest had no such problem.
  7. Measure Performance broadly- To avoid blame and finger pointing at Southwest in the 90’s they developed the ‘team delay’ which essentially meant that numerous departments played a role in the delay and rather than hunt out the culprit and discipline them, they all had to take responsibility and move forward together, learning from the mistake. Broadening functional accountability means less time appointing blame and more team responsibility being taken.
  8. Keep jobs flexible at the boundaries – Clear job descriptions ensure one individual is working efficiently, but often it can create a silo effect where they are unaware of others roles and how they all interrelate. Southwest encourage staff to understand clearly the roles of those around them and be able to step in at a moment’s notice. This also creates appreciation (rather than conflict) between various departments and enables fast and efficient cross boundary problem solving.
  9. Make unions your partners – It’s not the level of union representation that’s influencing organisational performance, rather the quality of the relationship with the union.
  10. Build relationships with suppliers – Southwest outsource very little, preferring to have complete autonomy and control over their supply chain. The relationships they must nurture with control tower staff, fuel suppliers and heavy mechanics are invested in significantly. These suppliers become part of the Southwest family and the same theory of shared goals; shared knowledge and mutual respect apply.

Essentially the book highlights that relationships with shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect create a source of competitive advantage. In the air line industry, no one comes close to what Southwest has created.

Attention to relationships is simply good management practice; at Southwest taking care of business literally means taking care of relationships. They see the quality of these relationships not just as a success factor, but as the most essential success factor and believe that to develop the company you must constantly invest in these relationships.

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