Case studies Learning excellence: Southwest Airlines’ approach
Ulla K. Bunz and Jeanne D. Maes
With the airline industry in the USA hardly making ﬁnancial records, how has it been possible for a small company such as Southwest Airlines to completely satisfy their customers since 1971? (Bovier, 1993). What lessons has the management of Southwest Airlines learned in such a relatively short time period? How have these lessons enabled the company to capture such a portion of the market? (Bovier, 1993; George and Jones, 1996) Southwest Airlines began its service in 1971. Since then the killer-whale painted planes have become familiar to their customers and to corporate America. ...view middle of the document...
First, the company is deﬁned as “excellent” according to the criteria established by Peters and Waterman. Second, management-employee relations, organizational training and strong leadership are identiﬁed as the sources of employee motivation. Third, loss of strong leadership and organizational structure are discussed as possible future problems inﬂuencing motivation and service. The article closes by pointing to Southwest Airline’s concept of service as the true source of motivation and excellence.
Southwest – the “excellent” company
In Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982), the authors summarize the results of their study of “excellent” companies. Forty-three US companies, taken from the Fortune 500 list “had to be of above-average growth and ﬁnancial return over a 20-year period, plus have a reputation in their business sector for continuous innovation in response to changing markets” (Pugh and Hickson, 1997, p. 99). The authors then applied the McKinsey 7-s framework to the selected companies. The 7-s framework describes the seven variables “that any intelligent approach to organizing had to encompass” (Peters and Waterman, 1982, pp. 9-10): structure, strategy, systems, style skills, shared values, and staff. Peters and Waterman expanded this list of excellence to include eight attributes:
Managing Service Quality Volume 8 · Number 3 · 1998 · pp. 163-169 © MCB University Press · ISSN 0960-4529
Learning excellence: Southwest Airlines’ approach
Managing Service Quality Volume 8 · Number 3 · 1998 · 163–169
Ulla K. Bunz and Jeanne D. Maes
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)
a bias for action; close to the customer; autonomy and entrepreneurship; productivity through people; hands-on, value-driven; stick to the knitting; simple form, lean staff; and simultaneous loose-tight properties.
Since in 1982 Southwest Airlines had only been operating for 11 years, it was not included in Peters and Waterman’s study. Yet, if carefully examined, Southwest can be labeled a successful learning organization in the light of Peters and Waterman’s 1982 criteria. A bias for action A company showing a bias for action favors experimentation. Management encourages “can do” and “let’s try” problem solutions (Pugh and Hickson, 1997, p. 100). Opendoor policies and short deadlines are also typical. In general, companies with a bias for action are open for change and new innovations. At Southwest, open-door policies and “let’s try” approaches are part of the special Southwest perspective. Kelleher has been classiﬁed as the sort of manager who will “stay out with a mechanic in some bar until four o’clock in the morning to ﬁnd out what is going on. Then he will ﬁx whatever is wrong” (Labich, 1994, p. 46). Employees are encouraged to generate ideas and then try them. “Southwest workers often go out of their way to amuse, surprise, or somehow entertain passengers” (Labich, 1994, p. 50). For example, employees may explain the usual...