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A Tale Of Two Airlines: How Smart Teams Work


Here's the situation.

You're the director of in-flight services for a major airline. The industry is highly competitive and IOT remain competitive, you need to figure out a way to keep existing customers from straying to other airlines AND how to attract new customers.


Here's the catch.


You have no control over ticket pricing and no decision making authority over how to package deals or change flight scheduling. The only impact you have is of the in-flight experience your crews provide, but,


It's limited.


What I mean is there's only so much control you have over ALL the flight crews flying at one time (they're in a plane, you're in your office). So, the question becomes, how do you create the conditions for these crews to deliver "the ultimate customer experience" and keep business booming.


AND, how do you ensure they KEEP doing it without a manager on board to hover over their shoulders and make sure they're doing things right AND doing the right things?


Here's how one airline approached it.


Airline A

  • They carefully designed a cabin that provided what they believed to be the best food choices, drinks, and entertainment for their passengers based on a detailed competitor analysis
  • They optimized their in-flight workflow routines using cabin mockups so attendants could practice the exact procedures they were supposed to use while in-flight
  • They conducted training programs to ensure that every flight attendant knew what the airline's goals were and what they needed to do to achieve them


This is how specific Airline A got:

  • Each flight crew broke down the specific tasks that each member was to perform, how they'd perform it, and when. The intent here was to choreograph how the crew worked together so the customer experience would be flawless. The only thing these flight attendants had to do was perform the duties assigned to them for every flight and they were randomly assigned to a new crew every day.


So, to summarize, you have:

  • A product that's perfectly designed to accommodate "the ultimate customer experience" based on market research.
  • You have comprehensive training so you know what to do and when during the flight
  • You have designated leaders (a senior flight attendant, for example) who deal with unexpected problems as they arise
  • And then at a strategic level, higher-ups within this airline's leadership didn't worry about their crews because they knew that, if the crews just did what they were told, they'd have a smooth flight and limited customer complaints


But…it came at a cost.


When competitors introduced a new service offering, it forced Airline A to adjust its offering, but it couldn't because of all that detail.


You see, because all the flight attendants at Airline A had to undergo extensive training, the airline itself couldn't adapt as fast as it wanted to because every employee needed to go through the new training first; it had to wait for everybody to cycle through the next training program so they would all know what to do on their next flight, how to do it, and when.


Airline A couldn't innovate. That's the first problem.


The 2nd problem was this…


No flight was ever the same. Just as nobody learns the same way, nobody can be led the same way, airline flights don't pan out the same way every time. What works well on a 10 hour flight is different than what works well on a 5 hour flight. And BECAUSE of the level of detail that these flight attendants were prescribed in their duties, they didn't feel they had the right to question or change how they worked.


So they didn't.


Service became monotonous, it became boring because the flight attendants themselves weren't allowed to deviate from script. They couldn't be creative, they couldn't optimize their own potential…and because they couldn't show up their best selves, they couldn't connect with Airline A's culture.


In fact when one customer was asked what he thought about the in-flight service, he said, "nothing special."


So the goal of designing how flight crews functioned so they could deliver the ultimate customer experience, was a complete and utter failure.


Airline B


Airline B had the same goal: deliver the ultimate customer experience through in-flight service and keep customers coming back.


One difference with Airline B though was that flight attendants would perform service tasks on the ground as well as in the air.


And to attract the right people the company highlighted the challenging aspects of the job rather than the attractive benefits it offered.


If you were hired into Airline B as a customer service manager--that's what they called cabin crew members--you'd undergo a 2 week training course that explored your idea of what teamwork was, what it wasn't, what strengths you bring to a team, what makes for an effective team, etc…


And at the end of these 2 weeks, you'd leave not as an individual, but as a team of four cabin crew members


From then on, it was teams, not individuals, that became the unit of performance that governed how work got done.


They even designed their work schedules as a team! They used a lottery system every month where teams would draw a number, and the number indicated your team's position in choosing its schedule.


So, if there were 6 teams for example and you drew a 1, then your team would have top choice for the next month's schedule .


And here's where the magic was…


Not all schedules were the same. A sexy destination might sound great but it also might mean more nights away from home than some team members would like.


Some team members wanted adventure, others wanted something simple.


The point is, the winning team chose their schedule as a team because it was the team's responsibility to work things out--not a manager or a supervisor or some designated leader. That's because leadership in teams--in true teams--rotates. It doesn't stay the same.


Now I know what you're probably wondering, "If nobody's the leader then who makes decisions and how does anything get done?"


Well, FAA regulations at the time  required there be at least 3 flight attendants and one of them designated the "lead." The customer service teams at Airline B had 4--4 people on team--and no designated leader.


So what they did was take a number of things into account like the destination, the weather, the passenger manifest, and decide who would go and who would take lead. If they only needed 3 of the 4 people then 1 person would stay back and do some other work at headquarters.


They also decided as a team how they'd perform their in-flight duties. They didn't have anything prescribed to them from senior management like Airline A. Instead, there told what the company's objectives were, the direction the company was taking to get there, and the behavioral boundaries that employees needed to stay within. Outside of that, the teams were on their own.


What this allowed was for each team to adapt to the flight they had. A plane full of passengers with tennis rackets and guitars was different than a plane full of business suits and briefcases--with the former the customer service teams could make jokes and be a little more lively; with the latter…not so much. It's all business.


The key takeaway here is this: the team could adapt to new passengers every flight, and because of this, they did deliver the ultimate customer experience.


Airline A left talent on the table; Airline B optimized the talent they already had.


Airline A tried to minimize the human capital risks that come from self-managed teams; Airline B tried exploited the benefits of a self-managed team.


Now there's something really important to highlight here: it's not just how the two teams differed in their workflow but what enabled them to work optimally to begin with.


Airline A gave each individuals detailed instructions.

Airline B gave teams direction.


Airline A trained their people for specific scenarios.

Airline B trained their teams to problem solve any scenario.


Airline A supported their people with specific training that they could apply to specific situations

Airline B supported their teams to support themselves which could be applied to any situation.


The lesson from all of this: if you want to forge an elite team you need to meet, communicate and decide everything, as a team. 


You need to show up, as a team.


If you liked today and want to continue the conversation, please join me weekly for a free live virtual meeting called The Weekly Team Accelerator.

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