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Southwest Airlines: A Culture Worth Understanding

Prepared by Neeraj Agarwal, ACA, MBA(Gen) , ,MA (Eco)

The mission of Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.
(Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Commitment to its Employees

We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.
Since January 1988 (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

What Makes Southwest Unique?

Southwest Airlines began operating in 1971 Much of Southwest's success is due to the willingness of its leadership to be innovative Southwest's primary operating philosophy is low fares and lots of flights Southwest management has created a culture where employees are treated as the company's number one asset The benefits it gives it employees, include: profit-sharing and empowering employees to make decisions Southwest mixes in New Age management techniques, such as celebrating different milestones, and letting love play a part in running the airline The company's stock ticker symbol is LUV (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Organizational Structure

Limited emphasis on formal organizational structure Leadership meetings are taped and shared with employees Leadership is Leadership by example Environment combines humor with responsibility Worker responsibility programs Team environment (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Decision Making Strategies

Decision making is by worker/management committees Employees are encouraged to be responsible and are given authority to make decisions Employee input into all policies and procedures All decisions are weighed against Southwests commitment to honesty and integrity Golden Rule Behaviors/Focus on the family (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1996)

Southwests Achievements

Southwest Airlines has become a legendary example of the power of servant leadership principles Its achievements are impressive considering the competitive, cut-throat airline industry in which it thrives Southwest Airlines has been named "one of the "Top Five Best Companies to Work for in America" by Fortune Magazine It has had the fewest customer complaints 18 years in a row as reported by the DOT Air Travel Consumer Report The Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 31 consecutive years, named the "2nd Most Admired Company in America by Fortune Magazine, and has an average employee turnover rate of less than 10% If you made a $10,000 investment in Southwest Airlines in 1972, it would be worth more than $10 million today. It has developed strong employee and customer loyalty - a feeling of devotion, duty and attachment to Southwest (West, 2005)

Southwests Culture is Focused on Relationships

Southwests most distinctive organizational competency is its ability to build and sustain relationships characterized by Shared goals Shared knowledge Mutual respect Focus on relationships is the fundamental driver of leadership, culture, strategy, and coordination at Southwest (Gittell, 2003)

Impact of Strong Relationships at Southwest

Employees embrace their connections with one another Which allows them to coordinate more effectively across all functions (Gittell, 2003)

We at Southwest Airlines foster and embrace fun, creativity, individuality, and empowerment. We love our employees. We trust our employees. (West, 2005)

Impact of Shared Goals at Southwest

Motivates individuals to move beyond what is best for their own narrow area of responsibility within their own function Motivates them to to act in the best interests of the overall process of the organization and lessens competition between different functions within the organization (Gittell, 2003)

Hire People who can Laugh at themselves.

(West, 2005)

Impact of Shared Knowledge at Southwest

Shared knowledge at Southwest is about how the tasks of one person or group are related to all other tasks This enables the workforce to act with regard for the total process This enables the workforce to be more competent, efficient and coordinated than their competitors (Gittell, 2003)

The philosophy at Southwest has always been, Never forget where you came from. (West,

Impact of Respect for Others at Southwest

Encourages all employees to value the contributions of their colleagues Encourages all employees to consider the impact of their actions on others Reinforces the tendency to act in the best interests of the overall work process (Gittell, 2003)

Southwests 10 Practices for Building High Performance Relationships


3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.


Leading with credibility and caring Investing in frontline leadership Hiring and training for relational competence Using conflicts to build relationships Bridging the work/family divide Creating boundary spanners Measuring performance broadly, Keeping jobs flexible at the boundaries Establishing partnerships with the unions Building relationships with suppliers (Gittel, 2003)

Credibility & Caring Key to Southwests Culture

At Southwest, credibility and caring are the two critical ingredients of effective leadership Credibility and caring are the ability to inspire trust and the ability to inspire in employees the belief that their leaders care deeply about their well-being Southwests top management team have gained the complete trust of managers in the field, and of frontline employees, by being forthright and consistent in their messages to employees (Gittel, 2003)

Role of Leadership in Southwests Culture

Leadership at Southwest is understood as a process that can take place at any level of the organization Southwest believes that leadership at the front line can play a critical role in organizational success so it has more supervisors per frontline employee than any other airline in the industry, despite the fact that many think the organization is flat and team-based It is an approach that directly contradicts many contemporary management thinkers who argue that supervisors tend to perpetuate bureaucracy and, thus, get in the way (Gittel,2003)

New leaders at Southwest are told, Dont try to learn your job. Your first priority is to get to know your people!
(West, 2005)

Role of Supervisors in Southwests Culture

Southwest supervisors are not obstacles to coordination among frontline employees, but play a valuable role in strengthening coordination through day-to-day coaching, counseling, and participation in frontline work, even baggage handling Supervisors go far beyond measuring performance and disciplining bad apples and focus on problem solving, advising, and providing support, encouragement, and recognition to individual subordinates Supervisors view their subordinates as internal customers who deserve help in doing their jobs better (Gittel, 2003)

Role of Relational Competence at Southwest

Teamwork at Southwest is based on relational competencethe ability to relate effectively with others Relational competence is a critical ingredient of organizational success, though it tends to be undervalued in the world of work Other organizations usually underestimate the importance of relational competence, especially when it comes to people who perform highly skilled jobs Often excellent performers are hired, but they cannot integrate their work effectively with the work of others which results in undermining of the organizations goals, which does not happen at Southwest (Gittell, 2003)

If you live by the Golden Rule, empowering your people do the right thing, how can you go wrong? (West, 2005)

Get and Train Relationally Competent Individuals

Southwest goes out of its way to hire those who will contribute to the overall operation of the airline elitists need not apply In recruiting pilots or mechanics they obtain the best who are also team players and able to relate well with other functional groups They then train & acculturate newly hired-most of whom come from other, more functionally divided airlines (Gittell,2003)

A candidate who thinks he can snow a recruiter during the interview may have already eliminated himself because hes proven to other employees that he isnt a fit for the system. (West. 2005)

Get and Train Relationally Competent Individuals

Southwests training is geared toward fostering relational competence, as well as functional expertise New staff learn about the overall work process and understand where they fit in and how their job relates to and supports jobs of coworkers Those not able to catch on to Southwests perspective are let go (Gittell, 2003)

We put every possible support in place to help trainees succeed, and we work with those who are truly sincere and put forth the effort.
(West, 2005)

Training at Southwest
"We often say that Southwest hires for attitude and trains for aptitude. However, besides teaching technical aptitude, we also provide Leadership training, and our Managers in Training (MIT) program is a part of that learning process.
Colleen Barrett , President Southwest Airlines (West, 2005)

Handling Conflict to Learn How to Improve Culture

In the airline industry, where highly interdependent work processes span multiple functions, not only are conflicts the norm, they are likely to have highly intensified effects People in different functions occupy different thought worlds that make shared understanding difficult Although many believe conflicts are destructive and to be avoided, Southwest believes constructive aspects exist, so actively identifying and resolving conflicts is a means of strengthening relationships that inspire effective coordination (Gittell, 2003)

Incorporating Personal Lives into its Culture

Traditional organizational practices often demand that, while at work, employees disconnect themselves from the aspects of their identity related to family, spirituality, personal pain and tragedy, and race or ethnicity. As a result individual attitudes and performance often suffer. Southwest blurs the boundary between work and personal life and strives to enhance rather than undermine employee ties to family and community Southwest openly recognizes deaths, births, and other major events in the lives of employees and their families, and has established a Catastrophic Fund to provide aid when needed (Gittell, 2003)

Southwest Airlines does many things well. But one of the things it does best is taking care of its people in the bad times, as well as the good. (West, 2005)

Incorporating Personal Lives into its Culture

Culture Committees were begun in the early 1990s to ensure that the companys rapid growth would not result in barriers between functions. Each station has its own committee to organize fund-raisers, parties, and ways for employees to give back to the community. These events bring family and other personal relationships into the workplace in a highly visible way. Southwest has a long tradition of bridging the work/family divide by seeking to accommodate the needs of families through flexible scheduling and ensuring that managers do not devote too much time to the job at the expense of their families. (Gittell, 2003)

Using Agents as Boundary Spanners

Although many different functions play a critical role in coordinating flight departures, the operations agents role is especially central An agent is at the center of communications among the various groups working to unload a plane, service it, reload it, and send it on its way An agent is responsible for bringing together and reconciling conflicting agendas among the various functions, regarding passenger needs, commitments to freight and mail customers, and the requirements of flight safety Essentially, operations agents act as boundary spanners, collecting, filtering, translating, interpreting, and disseminating information across organizational boundaries Effective boundary spanners do more than just process information they also build relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect as a means of facilitating work coordination (Gittell, 2003)

Using Agents as Boundary Spanners

Since the mid 1980s, many airlines tried to reduce the cost of this function by reducing the number of agents, increasing the number of flights they are assigned to, and relying more heavily on computer technology to coordinate departures-quality and detail of communication is not very high this way Southwest has chosen opposite tack and is unique its operations agents are assigned to lead only one departure at a time so that they can interact, face to face, with every party involved in the flight departure process By developing a web of human relationships across boundaries, Southwest operations agents are able to create a broader sense of shared identity and vision among previously divided functions, creating more opportunities for collective action. (Gittell, 2003)

Cross-functional Performance is Measured

Cross-functional performance measures that Southwest uses encourage employees to focus on learning, rather than on blaming, when things go wrong and, as a result, bolster relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. Cross-functional approach to performance measurement is associated with higher levels of relational coordination, which, in turn, contributes to improved flight departure performance, faster turnaround times, greater staffing productivity, fewer lost bags, and fewer customer complaints. (Gittell, 2003)

Insist your employees live by a doing more with less philosophy. (West, 2005)

What do we learn from Southwest?

The primary lesson is that though relationships are relatively soft organizational factors and therefore tempting to neglect under challenging conditions, strong working relationships allow organizations to move beyond the traditional trade-offs between efficiency and quality and to achieve higher levels of both, simultaneously. Relationships are not just a nice addition to the hard factors, but are powerful drivers of organizational performance, if they are consistently integrated into organizational practices over the long term. (Gittell, 2003) (West, 2005) (Freiberg & Freiberg, 1996)


Freiberg, K. & Freiberg, J. (1996) Nuts!

Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success. New York: Broadway Gittell, J.H. (2003). The Southwest Airlines Way: Using Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill West, L.G. (2005). Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It - An Insider's View.
Dallas, TX: CornerStone Leadership Institute