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Why Airlines Take Off
Why are some airlines thriving as others straggle in and out of bankruptcy, losing money and customer loyalty every quarter?
Jody Hoffer Gittel ’84 offered some answers in her convocation talk at Reunions 2006, based on her recent book, The Southwest Airlines Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003). Gittel has spent the past 10 years researching the role of front-line leaders in coordinating work, particularly in high-pressure service settings such as airlines and hospitals, and examining how organizational practices hinder or support their work.
Gittel studied political science at Reed and received her Ph.D. from MIT’s Sloan School in 1995. Now an assistant professor of management at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Gittell says her work on the success or failure of organizational practices is still informed by early coursework in political philosophy with Dean of the Faculty Peter Steinberger. What drives both inquiries, she says, is an interest in the socially embedded human subject and an accompanying question: what is the basis of a just society?
The emergence of Southwest Airlines gained Gittel’s attention in the early 1990s while she was hanging out at Boston’s Logan Airport compiling statistics for her research. Southwest, which had been operating since the early 1970s but had stayed largely below the industry’s radar, had continued to grow (even during the first Gulf War) while other airlines shrank.
Consumers had begun to redefine quality in terms of reliability rather than amenities, which was one of Southwest’s strengths. But it was the airline’s organizational strategy, Gittel says, that set the company apart.
Southwest, more than any other airline she studied, fosters among workers a set of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. In turn, the resulting relationships, coordinated by front-line workers, drive frequent, timely, problem-solving communication. Gittel calls this “relational coordination,” and she argues that studying the strength of those networks can be used to predict quality and efficiency advantages of an organization.