Good- Better- Best: ~ How Southwest Airlines could outrun its competitors and become the embodiment of Excellence ~

2 May

When I spent one year in the United States of America, I first discovered what team spirit actually means. Every Friday afternoon the whole High School met in the gym to encourage the football players to do their best at the game which followed just a few hours later. Everyone was yelling and screaming as loud as possible because at this moment on the football field the team represented the whole school. And our mission statement always was: “Good-Better-Best, our good is better, our better is best!”

Now, that I have read the Building Business Agility at Southwest Airlines case study, I figured that you can apply a lot of this mission statement to the philosophy and development strategy of Southwest Airlines. In the beginning they were good and made high profits implying as little technology as possible but then competitors showed up on the market and they had to change strategies to become better than any other airline to maintain their profits.

For that reason, Southwest Airlines first started to develop their technology systems which included an overhaul of the IT unit, a new design and implementation of a technology foundation as well as the prioritization and delivery of new systems. They also organized this new technology by centralizing all technologists under a CIO, reducing the staff members from 1200 to 890 and job titles from 140 to 30. All this was monitored by standard processes. I don’t want do go into detail here about the technology foundation but this is in short the technological development of Southwest Airlines which helped them to stay competitive.

But Southwest Airlines strived for more to become the best on the market. They didn’t want to be one out of a hundred, so they didn’t only work to improve their technology but also their management competencies. Because after technology has upgraded, all different departments started working together and having meetings, so that they can learn and profit from each other’s knowledge. One initiative intended to apply technology to support both increased efficiencies and enhanced customer service was known as “Redefining Excellence” in Ground Operations and in my opinion that was the key to success for Southwest Airlines. “Redefining Excellence” became the largest department at Southwest Airlines, with around 11,000 employees who worked at airports, when it started in 2004 at the Phoenix airport with a town hall for senior managers and Southwest employees to discuss the need for change. The objective of this initiative was to redesign processes across airports, including ticket counters, boarding, and baggage handling, to maximize the use of Southwest resources. And all this was supported by the technology foundation base which is also the base for a constant and continuous positive development at Southwest Airlines.

To me it simply means no matter what you are doing, do it as best as you can. Nobody is perfect but you can come close to it if you never stop learning and constantly adopt to changes whether it is in business, in society or even at university and in school. Just like my football team practiced every day for several hours, in the rain or in the boiling sun, to improve their performance on the field. Nobody was satisfied with just being second in the ranking. You can’t always win, but you can limit the times you lose to a minimum and this is what Southwest Airlines has done. During further researches on this topic, I found a very interesting article from the business book “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters written already thirty years ago. In it, he defined eight characteristics of excellent competencies: a bias for action, staying close to the customer, autonomy and entrepreneurship, productivity through people, clear and compelling organizational values, focusing on what you do best, operating with a lean staff, and finding a balance between having enough structure without getting stuck in it. I think that these principles have remained good guide lines up until today. However, our world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, especially in business and economy. In my eyes, it is time to redefine what excellence means in our today’s society and I think Southwest Airlines has done a great job in doing so. For them, excellence is more than a set of principles. It’s more a set of beliefs, ways of thinking, a matter of discipline, and ways of focusing and of course learning. because learning is a process, rather than a collection of factual knowledge and this process is probably never going to stop throughout our whole lives!


One Response to “Good- Better- Best: ~ How Southwest Airlines could outrun its competitors and become the embodiment of Excellence ~”

  1. tankennethhh May 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Julia, an excellent summary of the text. I liked how you incorporated your experience and the ‘Good-Better-Best’ slogan into Southwest’s progressive development. The article could do with some spaces in-between but nonetheless, it was a good read. Best job!

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