In my continuing search for excellence in management, I had been visiting the executives at Swissair. The airline's service is legend. In survey after survey, it shows up as either first preference for international business travelers or among the first.
Flying back from Europe--on Swissair, of course--I got a picture of why the airline is so good that was far better than any discussion with top management could have revealed.
We had taken off from Zurich and were comfortably settling in when the meal service began. I had picked an appetizer, a non-cholesterol-conscious spread of caviar, toast, grated eggs, finely diced onions and a little chilled vodka to help wash it down. The flight attendant seemed a little disturbed by my selection and proceeded to apologize profusely for what he called the "burned toast." I looked at the toast--a little too brown, but certainly not burned . . . at least not by airline standards.
I wouldn't have given the matter another thought, but the steward was so obviously sad at the state of the toast that I joined into the spirit of the thing. "What do you do about a problem like that?" I exclaimed.
"Wait a minute," he said, as he rummaged around through a few papers, pulled out a form and explained that he would fill it out and submit it to management. (So far, nothing too unusual.) Then, with about as much animation as I have ever seen in a Swiss, he directed my attention to a little box at the bottom. "See this," he said. "If I check this box, management has to respond and tell me what they've done about the problem."
Management Forced to Help
No wonder Swissair offers such fine service. The people who deliver that service are empowered. Here we are, by now five miles above the Earth, somewhere between Scotland and Iceland. The fellow responsible for upholding the Swissair standard of service can do nothing at the moment to solve the burned toast problem. My guess is that most employees in situations like that one would have shrugged their shoulders, said "that's life," hoped the customer wouldn't complain and been a little annoyed with any bitchy passenger who did take note of the problem.
But this employee was not about to shrug his shoulders. He had the power to do something to make sure that the toast wasn't "burned" in the future. He was responsible for service. He couldn't deliver the kind of service that made him proud. The brilliance of Swissair is that they had devised a system that forced management to help him, if he wanted that help.
Empowerment way, way down the line is the key to keeping organizations fresh, vibrant, alive, in-touch and renewed. People in almost every field know how their job could be done better. They know how the organization they work for could cut costs, give better service, improve quality. But most men and women at work do not feel that they have the power to do anything. The "why fight City Hall" attitude is common. Companies don't get better because the people in them believe that they cannot make a difference. Too often those people are right.
The Swissair example is not an isolated one. Any organization that renews itself has the equivalent. The city of Scottsdale, Ariz., began to pull its way out of years of bureaucratic apathy when management started a "This seems stupid to me" campaign. On sheets of yellow ruled paper they scrawled the words "This seems stupid to me" and encouraged employees--whenever they found themselves forced by the system to do something that, well . . . seemed dumb to them--to jot it down and send it to management.
Ford tells its folks that "Quality is Job 1," then empowers them to make quality Job 1 by giving factory workers a button that shuts down the assembly line when they see faulty products moving down the line. At General Electric, a big part of the turnaround story at Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky., was executive Don Kelley's purchasing traffic lights, installing those lights on the production line and empowering workers to switch the light from green to red (thereby shutting down the line) every time they found defective appliances being produced.
Conventional management wisdom says this approach to empowerment simply encourages work stoppages and slowdowns. But Kelley never encountered a single instance of that. In fact, in my talks with the 45 companies who formed the research base for "The Renewal Factor," I never heard about even one case of misuse of the empowerment idea.
The obvious direct product of putting more power in the hands of those who do the job is that ideas for doing things better start to flow freely. It's just good business. Not long ago, Procter & Gamble reported that some 25,000 ideas generated by people down the line accounted for a whopping $9 million in annualized cost savings. Southern California Edison told me about similar results: 5,000 ideas and $100,000 in savings. At IBM, it was 30,000 ideas and an estimated $125 million in savings.