The Best Thoughts About the United Airlines Fiasco

This is the best thinking I’ve seen about the United Airlines fiasco. Related, see my blog: The Singularity.

The piece below paints a vivid picture of a culture that demands conformity and compliance from employees. The culture robs people of their freedom, their creativity and their ability to solve problems in the moment. The people try to be machines. But they are not  machines. The pressure to be something other than themselves sucks the life out of them. Had the employees felt valued, involved and informed and had they felt empowered to think creatively and to put the customer first, I believe this incident would not have happened. I thought we had learned these lessons in the 90’s. This is a failure of leadership at the highest levels of United.

From Fast Future Publishing:

“We think the biggest casualties of the recent highly publicized United Airlines service failure may not be the airline, its shareholders or an under-siege CEO. Instead, we believe those who could experience the biggest long-term challenges and consequences are the people running large-scale digital transformation programmes, their technology and implementation partners, and those heralding artificial intelligence (AI) as the future of business.  At the human and operational levels, the investigations, court cases, trials by TV and social media inquests will rumble on. Everyone wants to get to underlying truth of why Dr David Dao was violently yanked from his seat on United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Louisville Kentucky on Sunday April 9th. The full commercial repercussions will take a while to work through. At one point, over US$250 million was wiped off the value of United’s stock, and it could fall further should customers choose to fly with other carriers in protest. The debate will also intensify about how long United’s CEO Oscar Munoz can stay in post before either falling on his sword or being bumped by his board.

Image Credit: Staresattheworld
Anyone who has the misfortune of flying United – even in the big bucks cabins – knows that sense of being on board a prison ship where you have to keep the wardens happy for fear of verbal reprimand or punishment. Sit anywhere near the galley and listen to the crew talking – in 15 minutes you’ll hear all the evidence you need of what’s going wrong with the airline.  United’s disillusioned staff are the embodiment of a business that prioritises systems over service, control over customers, subservience over solutions, and profits over people. They are the classic example of an organisation behaving like the machines it employs and seeing staff and customers simply as inputs to be transformed into outputs in the form of profits.

In the grand scheme of things, the incident raises massive warning signs for those embarking on flights of corporate transformation to an anticipated digital nirvana. Around the world, medium to large enterprises are spending hundreds of millions – and in some cases more than a billion – US dollars on digital transformation and AI automation programmes. These are primarily designed to create a hyper-efficient, low cost “algorithmic business” and replace humans wherever possible with smart and adaptive software. The appeal is that these shiny new systems will work 24/7/365, learn, adapt, respond consistently, never have an off day or a day off, and service peaks in business demand at no extra cost.

However, the warning bells should be ringing, the United case highlights what happens when we place too much store in technology. In this case, there was no real AI involved, just a set of rigid rules embedded in software and a removal of almost all freedom, capacity and incentive for staff to use their own initiative. Anyone – literally anyone – could have told United of the PR disaster that would ensue in today’s smartphone enabled and social media fuelled environment if they chose to send police onto the plane to forcibly remove Dr Dao. Had the United ground staff been able to use common sense and felt the courage to do so, they would have put their own staff on another flight or hired a limo to get them to Louisville, both of which would almost certainly have cost less than the US$800 plus accommodation that they were offering to each of the four passengers they wanted to remove. United could also have offered progressively higher levels of deplaning compensation until someone took the bait – suggestions range from US$1,000 – 1,300 as to what that figure might have been. United’s system doesn’t appear to have been equipped to make such choices or offer sensible suggestions, and the airline staff involved certainly didn’t look like they felt empowered to do so.

Image Credit: Denver Post
This represents a massive red flag for organisational digital change programs and those pursuing “employee” light AI-first automation strategies. The risk is that we create hollowed out businesses that are too rigid and incapable of responding to both predictable variations and truly unforeseen challenges. Embarking on an intense automation path actually requires that we give more autonomy and authority to the remaining humans in the organisation. They need to act fast and sensitively to problems, genuinely putting the customer first – rather than the system and the rules. The test is would you personally feel happy with the resolution on offer if you were the customer on the receiving end? Failure to do so could lead to a lot more United-style problems for many organisations. The United case will be a wake-up call for many firms and could lead to a slowing, suspension, or even cancellation of their digital change initiatives as they take stock to ensure they are not automating themselves off the playing field.

On the positive side, United and others will hopefully be forced to look at and change the nature and tone of their patently insensitive and seemingly inhuman machine generated corporate responses.  The world can see through double speak, as evidenced by the sheer scale of the vitriol directed at the airline, the number of United mocking advertisements from competitors, and the level of ridicule being heaped upon CEO Munoz and his team for the meaningless corporate mumbo jumbo they’ve been spouting on social media, in statements and in media interviews. These are all warnings of what happens when we become the machine.

So, how can we avoid “doing a United” and crash landing our digital transformation programmes? The first step is to be really clear on why we are doing the digital change or AI project. If cost is the primary driver, then we can pretty much guarantee some service failures of the “United kind”, if not always so public. Even though there may well be cost savings, the primary driver has to be delivery of a better, faster, more seamless, less frustrating, and more responsive service to customers. Get the service design right before we build the systems and the cost savings will follow. Secondly, we must look at our investment in people and their capacity to solve problems. United’s latest bout of self-harm highlights a real imperative to develop staff who can think on their feet, truly empathise with customers and come up with creative solutions that get it right when and where it counts – even if there’s an associated short-term cost of doing so for the organisation.

Image Credit: Denver Post
The more the rules and the process design are embedded in the system, the more important it will be for staff to be able to act fast and decisively at the point of customer interaction, especially when the technology fails or throws up patently dumb solutions in the prevailing context. This is going to take a lot of courage for staff to do this rather than choosing the “United Way” and simply following the rule book – employees will need to see, feel, smell, and touch the organisation’s commitment to protect them if they do the right thing for the customer. As organisations automate more deeply and reduce headcounts more savagely, the competition for the few remaining jobs will become more intense. This is likely to create an immense reluctance to take risks to bypass the rules and show initiative unless the firm can provide tangible and believable proof that these are the new winning behaviours that will help you keep your job and earn promotions. Admittedly, such opportunities might be in shorter supply in the highly-automated enterprise.

The biggest challenge lies in changing the leadership mindset. Many technology programmes are currently predicated on the notion that we’ll have far greater transparency and control over everything that happens – everywhere and at all times – the control freak’s utopia! The reality is that with AI, we cannot as yet see how these complex learning algorithms make their decisions and the internal rules they create and evolve, so we will be placing a level of blind faith in the systems. Secondly, the things that truly differentiate us and set us apart from our competitors will not be the clever choices made by our super smart algorithms: The true moments that make a difference will come from the stories of our people going above and beyond to serve the customer when the system wouldn’t allow it or simply failed to do the right thing. The irony is that, almost inevitably, the thinning of corporate headcounts will go too far too fast, and the few staff that remain will not have the time to provide detailed reports of how they did the right thing – perhaps their social media accounts will be the best place to find that out.

Almost inevitably, more attention gets paid to the big-ticket technology expenditure than the transformation of mindsets, enablement of empowerment and development of deep capabilities amongst staff. We often see and hear firms proudly proclaiming their investments in technology transformation as their commitment to a bright digital future for their business. In contrast, it’s a rarity to see organisations making equally proud statements about their investment in people. That pretty much tells us all we need to know about where the “United moments” are likely to occur.

There are many lessons that can be learnt from Dr Dao’s experience, not least to think twice before flying with United. However, perhaps the most transferable teaching point is to stand back and re-evaluate our digital transformation and AI-enablement initiatives to make sure that we are using the technology in genuine service of our people. We need to ensure that we are equipping staff to make empowered decisions to act in the best interests of the paying customer. In short, and perhaps paradoxically, the real goal of digital transformation and automation is to create a very human business.”

4 thoughts on “The Best Thoughts About the United Airlines Fiasco

  1. This is really good. There was a period, the ’90s I think, when some airlines parted from their own organizational rigidity and empowered line employees like gate agents to act intuitively in resolving passenger problems, even if it meant breaking the rules. That was, briefly, the in thing back then, in customer service. For a good summary of that approach, see this Harvard Business Review piece from 1990. at Sadly, the trend lasted about as long as eight track tapes.


  2. Bruce: The article is excellent. Right on through and through. The work we did at the ST after your left (not because you left) was a life-changing time for me and sent me back to school and into consulting and writing. I left to go out and join the movement to change how we lead, follow and manage. Well, United is but one example of how successful we were!


  3. Employee empowerment must come from the top, go through every layer and be felt all of the way down to the newbie in the mailroom. That certainly did not happen where I was employed. The age of empowerment was overthrown a few years after it began. By the time our Customer Service Center crashed and burned, we had gone from being led by empowerment to a system of having algorithmically driven control freaks at the helm. I should have seen it coming. I should have left before I internalized the total sense of powerlessness. Every move the reps made was measured by a computer program. I do not blame the Supervisors. Many were wonderful people that truly cared about their employees. But, when your supervisor has to tell you that they are monitoring the length and frequency of your use of the restroom, you know it is no longer about providing premier service to the customer. The rest is history.

    I certainly hope that United learns from the error of their management decisions. It would be good if we could get behind the idea that technology is the do all and be all for every organization. There has to be a human element.


  4. Thanks Linda: What happened in Customer Service at the Star Tribune was dastardly and very painful to watch. My belief that the work we did would be destroyed was, in large part, why I left the Star Tribune. Sadly, I was correct.


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