Sorry, I seem to have gone AWOL (Away Wandering Over Land) for a while. Part of this was intentional (planned travels), and part was purely spontaneous (though necessary travels). Suffice it to say that since April we’ve been from east to west coasts (plane), and from (nearly) north to south (by car).
All the while I did have a couple of main bullet points to begin a series of posts on Organizational Culture, but was just missing a flow, the proper narrative, the glue that would hold it together. It wasn’t until mid-August at the close of our travels that things began to come together (for a post) as they literally fell apart (for travel).
We departed on a Thursday afternoon from Albuquerque, NM, after another week on the ‘Dude Ranch’ with our friend Carol, connecting through Las Vegas on the way to Philadelphia. Lots of dodging of clouds during our approach to Las Vegas was a portent of things to come. We were one of the last planes to (roughly) land at 3:00 pm, and got to watch the thunderstorms and lightening roll over the airport, closing it and leaving loaded planes on the tarmac and at gates. Our 4:40 pm connection was delayed to 5:50 pm as our plane was diverted to Albuquerque (great irony here), leaving us to sit and ‘make friends’ in the terminal. Then it was cancelled due to weather, joining a feast of other cancellations. And so, SIT Happens, again. Rebooking was already an issue (1 hour wait on the phone; can’t rebook online because ‘your flight is already underway;’ and dare not exit security and try at the check-in counters), so now STAND Happens, a slow wait in line. By the time I reached the counter, there were no seats left to Philadelphia for Friday (and no courtesy accommodations as it was due to weather, out of their control), so I opted to get to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia Friday morning. This flight was scheduled to depart about 8:00 pm. The plane arrived, unloaded passengers, and as we lined up to board came the announcement that the plane wasn’t going anywhere due to mechanical problems. So, SIT Happens, again. Another plane was redirected, and we were scheduled to depart at 10:00 pm. Once again, the plane arrived, unloaded passengers, and as we lined up to board came the announcement, a pilot and stewardess were over hours and they had to find replacements. And so, once again, SIT Happens. We finally departed at midnight, arriving in Chicago at 5:00 am, and eventually arrived in Philadelphia at 12:30 pm (incidentally, while my thoughts are ‘flowing,’ this was in a narrow window just before the FAA computers went down and shut down the east coast for 4 hours). (Oh yes, luggage arrived the following day and was delivered).
That’s a rough synopsis from the passenger side of the events. What is more interesting, although of less interest to tired, irritated, and delayed travelers, was the response from the airline personnel, both the visible (on the floor and at the counters) and those not visible.
Staff, including managers, manned every available counter, immediately. They were courteous and accommodating in spite of passenger frustration and shortness; at the second cancellation, snacks and water were provided, and management remained to answer questions. (At the third cancellation they did bring a policeman ‘just in case’ but he didn’t have much to do). Communications were as transparent as they could be, under the circumstances. When we finally boarded it was by names on the booked passenger list as most boarding passes had been collected on the previous flights, a process that was tedious but fully explained ahead of time. The employee doing this remained courteous if not humorous throughout the process, moving as quickly and efficiently as he could. And when we pulled away from the gate, I noticed that a high up counter manager, one that had been on the counter for a couple of hours, was also on board, accompanying us on the flight.
Behind the scenes, while I can only imagine the specifics, I am familiar enough with scheduling and logistics to recognize the response to chaos, turmoil, and incomplete information. Shuffling planes becoming available when weather AND air traffic control permit; shuffling available crews; finding replacement crews; shuffling ground personnel and baggage; shuffling counter and ticketing staff, all these can be anticipated in theory, but the real thing is always unique. And stressful.
Bottom line, it was a rough travel day (and work day), and in spite of unusual circumstances (three cancellations for three different reasons) we all managed to make it through. A significant reason for this, observable during the developing situation, was the culture of that organization, and to a significant degree, the passengers’ recognition of that culture.
To apologize for the unusual circumstances of three cancellations for three different reasons, the passengers on our flight were compensated with vouchers for future travel. For the record, the organization is Southwest Airlines.
So, here’s the connection, the flow: How does an organization create and maintain an operational culture conducive if not optimal to its mission, that is also sustainable, especially during a crisis?
First, take the obvious: you need a product or service (a What); you need a mission (a Why); you need goals to achieve (another What); you need a business plan and strategy (the How’s); and you need a realistic time frame to measure healthy progress (the When). But these are all inanimate things. They are not culture, nor can they have culture, nor can culture be thrust upon them.
Next, take the obscure: Culture is a characteristic of people, in this case both customers and employees. It is the way they think (Fundamental Principle 16), which then leads to how they behave.
Customers will be attracted to (or repulsed by) two organizational things. First, to/by the inanimate ‘What’ that is built and delivered: products or services; and second, to/by the animation that is the organization’s culture.
Finally, take what should be obvious but is often overlooked: employees are the fundamental building blocks that are essential in creating or building and maintaining the culture. As I posted earlier, employees are not just ‘resources’ (which are consumed), but assets (which are to be developed so they will grow in value as they add value to the organization and its stakeholders).
Even as assets, we are still individuals. We each have a ‘Personal Culture’ (my picture), made up of our Temperament (our inborn behavioral and emotional patterns) and our Personality (which emerges through external cultural influence and experience), 1 which includes our unique Values (Professed and/or Practiced), Attitudes, and Beliefs. Along with this Personal Culture, parts of which are widely and commonly recognized and discussed in leadership literature, we bring more specific and desired attributes to the organization: our Skills, Talents, and the ability to learn and grow. I’ve posted earlier a bit on each of these attributes.
But there is one additional Personal Culture attribute that I have rarely seen discussed which I think needs to be introduced, and which connects directly from our recent travel experiences above. And I think this attribute is a critical one to recognize in creating a sustainable organizational culture.
Next: The Two Questions
1 Quiet, Susan Cain, p 101. A most excellent, enjoyable, and instructive read.