February 20, 2013
Isn’t it great when a plan all comes together? I think this is the case because, as most of us know, getting everything to come together is a lot easier on paper than it is in real life. Mike Tyson once said that, “everyone has a plan until they get hit”. While being punched in the face is certainly on no one’s agenda, Tyson’s statement is a metaphor for most of our efforts to make things work they way we want them to. Typically, what starts out simple becomes complex as businesses attempt to deal with their internal idiosyncrasies and lose the battle to resist the myriad of “wouldn’t it be great ifs” that can turn even the most straightforward plan into something even Rube Goldberg would chalk up to wretched excess. Since we are very often our own worst enemies in our efforts to implement our business plans, it pays to study how one company actually was able to do it right.
As the story goes, Southwest Airlines was born from an idea laid out on a cocktail napkin. The fundamental idea was that customers would be willing to live with few frills (meals, for example) in exchange for a pleasant travel experience on planes that departed and arrived on time at price points below the major carriers. In effect, their goal was to deliver on the classic paradox: high quality service at low prices.
Perhaps the key decision that Southwest made that enabled them to achieve their objective was to standardize their product. In this case, the product was the plane used to chauffeur their customers to and from their destinations. By standardizing on the Boeing 737 (that they still use today) they were able eliminate the complexities associated with the multiple types of aircraft that comprised the fleets of their competitors. Training for all maintenance, and support personnel was streamlined through this focus on a single plane and subsequent changes in maintenance requirements were easily incorporated without disrupting normal operations.
This standard product focus also allowed Southwest to stock common parts throughout its maintenance locations. Rather than having their schedules routinely disrupted due to mismatches in the planes requiring maintenance and the location of the necessary parts that could take them out of service for extended periods of time, repairs could be made quickly to eliminate schedule disruptions. This standards-based approach manifested itself to this day in the company’s ability to achieve its target of a 10-minute turnaround for a landing flight to be ready to take-off with a new load of passengers.
Standardizing on their product also enabled the company to develop processes that enhanced the overall customer experience. By enabling passengers to board in large groups and select their seats on a first come, first serve basis, for example, the time required for all customers to be seated and ready for departure was dramatically reduced relative to competing airlines.
Delivering on the model that they had envisioned required Southwest to exercise a degree of discipline that is difficult for most firms to maintain. In adopting a standard product model the company made the conscious choice to cede some percentage of the market to their competitors. Southwest provides an excellent example of how a company can succeed by vigilantly maintaining their focus. Next week we’ll talk about how they are also becoming an example of what happens when you lose that focus.