Focus on what is relevant

There is something equal parts interesting and frightening going on with Southwest Airlines. A bit of background - Southwest was founded by Herb Keller in 1967 and is a short-haul, low cost carrier in the US. Herb Keller was extremely operationally savvy and said from the beginning that the employees were the number one asset. During his tenure as CEO between 1967 and 2004 he was very much “in the trenches” and kept reiterating that the people were key. When he retired in 2004, the long slide into the disaster they’re facing today began, as the new CEO was all about the money (bottom line, shareholder value, etc.). He also appointed another money guy as the COO, and suddenly the management were not really driving the operational aspects of the airline, but let operational decisions come as consequences of financial decisions instead of the other way around.

Fast forward to today, where their entire scheduling system fell over. The December winter storm in the US made things difficult for most airlines, but it essentially destroyed Southwest’s ability to schedule crews, aircraft, hotel bookings for crews - the whole nine yards.

There are several factors contributing to this situation - is most often the case, but the two that stand out to me are:

  • a leadership shift from focusing on the people to focusing on the money
  • a complete inability to take care of technical debt - the reason their systems fell over is that said systems are from the 90s. The were rated for some 300 scheduling operations per day, and when demand went over 20.000 per day, well, you do the math.

People matter.
Technical debt is not only a nuisance - it is a direct threat to the survival of the company.