Recent headlines about United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger from an oversold flight strike fear into the hearts of many travelers. But these stories reveal more than just a huge customer relations failure; they demonstrate that the real root of United’s problem is that (like most airlines) the business has a rules-based strategy for gate operations. This tactic is, fundamentally: Don’t think; just follow the rules. Of course, this kind of mindless approach leads to serious customer experience and brand image problems.
While reading and pondering these articles, I thought back to General Stanley McChrystal’s book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.” The author discusses how some airlines have implemented something called cockpit resource management, which is a method for training flight crews in teamwork and problem-solving, rather than simply instructing them to follow pre-established rules and guidelines. McChrystal notes that this was the reason that Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger was able to land his malfunctioning plane on the Hudson: The crew worked together to diagnose the problem and come up with and implement a solution — all within minutes.
This strategy may remind you of Spanish clothing and accessories retailer Zara’s approach to fast fashion. This company’s ability to go from concept to shipped product in a matter of days is no doubt a direct result of having zero management review. There aren’t any meetings or lengthy approval processes; it is up to a team composed of a store manager, a designer and a factory worker to execute the apparel from concept to design to manufacture to shipping to sale. Zara proves that empowered employees don’t need a bunch of rules and procedures; they just get it done.
World marketplaces are evolving brutally fast. To have a future in the next century, supply chain management professionals and the businesses they lead are going to have to learn how to keep up with this speed of change. The key to survival demands two crucial capabilities: being lean and being innovative.
Just-in-time manufacturing, total quality management and continuous improvement all must be embedded in company cultures. (Note that just being focused on waste reduction and delivering customer satisfaction via high-quality products are not enough; continuous improvement is essential.)
Learning to be even more innovative — and not just with regard to new products but across the board — is equally important. Supply chain management professionals must maintain a heightened focus on what the customer wants next, find new strategies for being flexible and learn how to customize products in the most timely and cost-effective manner possible.
How can all of this be achieved? It’s a tough road, but General McChrystal says to begin by building an organization that is a “team of teams.” Such a business has highly skilled, trained and motivated people who work together effectively with a minimal amount of supervision. These people not only move fast but also effectively and efficiently. This type of company dynamic also requires employees who understand the business mission and vision, the customer, and what it takes to succeed in the marketplace.
Most importantly, a professional, sophisticated management style and leaders who can guide a high-powered team are critical. As a university professor, I can tell you that I am honestly unsure if this type of person exists in the quantity that we need to succeed. But I do know that we have the raw resources — I see them in class every day. I hope we can work together to figure out how to develop these budding professionals into the outstanding leaders of the future.
Philip E. Quigley, CFPIM, PMP, is senior project manager at Ingram Micro and an adjunct professor in the department of management at California State University, Fullerton. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
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