Where Did the Learning Go?

The recent United Airlines fiasco illuminated the dark and anti-human side of the machine model of organizations. United has much to learn about leadership.

The following excerpt comes from Learning to Lead, a book manuscript I wrote in 1995. The book described an organizational transformation in the Customer Service department of the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN from 1990-94. These thoughts remain relevant and I offer them freely to United Airlines.

During the fall of 1990, we established five strategic objectives.

They were:

  1. To improve the quality of work life for employees

Technology is important, but we felt that our employees had to come first. If they felt good about themselves, each other, their products, and their company, they would then provide enthusiastic service to the newspaper’s readers. Customer satisfaction and retention rates would then improve.

Quality of work life didn’t mean happiness. We knew we could not make everyone happy. Quality of work life meant creating a culture that treated everyone with respect, involved people in decisions that impacted them, empowered employees to serve the customer, gave employees the tools they needed to serve the readers, and provided opportunities to learn and perform.

  1. To improve customer satisfaction

It would be more important to retain our existing customers than to utilize promotional activities of marginal value to add new and usually temporary customers. We would retain customers by providing outstanding service, recovering rapidly when we made a mistake, and developing good relationships between front-line employees and our readers. These activities would grow our customer base.

  1. To become more creative

We realized that we would need the creativity of everyone as we moved to the future. We would change how we related to one another. We would encourage, draw out, and reward creative thinking and risk taking. To do this, we would have to change how we led. We would give up control, get out of the way, and allow people to be the best they could be. The job of leaders would be to facilitate this process

  1. To become faster moving and more flexible

We would do this through empowerment. Employees would have the freedom to serve their customers and make decisions about work processes they managed. The flow of information would be opened up and would support empowerment; secrecy would end. These changes in how we led people were required to encourage different ways of thinking about work and willingness to doing our jobs in different ways. The results would be speed and flexibility.

  1. To increase profitability

Financial success would be a natural result of realizing the first four objectives. Energized and committed employees would provide outstanding service to readers resulting in satisfied customers who would stay with the newspaper longer. Improved customer retention would mean reduced expense for generating new customers and less money spent on rework and recovery processes. A larger readership impacts advertising rates in a positive way. A creative, faster moving, and flexible workforce, empowered to provide outstanding service to customers, would require less supervision and fewer supervisors.

Creative employees would find new ways to bring revenue to the company. This business unit would eventually conceive of an alternate delivery system that would serve advertisers in targeted ways, initiate the marketing of products bearing the company logo to readers and non-readers, and investigate the use of our distribution system to deliver other products until told to stop by senior management (that wasn’t the business of a newspaper). There was a surge of wonderful ideas–most coming from front-line employees.

In addition to establishing these objectives, we wrote a vision for the business unit and a definition of Value Driven Leadership–those core values that would guide us as we moved toward our vision. Our key strategies were employee involvement, culture change, and market driven quality. We then created new norms for our emerging culture, developed specific planning objectives, and formed project teams. Values and vision drove our planning.

The redesign of our work and the involvement and empowerment of employees awakened those long dead to the organization and led to phenomenal business results and dramatic improvements in already outstanding customer service. Our work was recognized nationally, we spoke at conferences on employee engagement and people from around the country visited us. We had learned and shown that great human potential resides untapped in every group of people. Technology is really important; engaged people are even more vital. We do not have to choose humanity or technology. The right choice is humanity and technology.

I wondered why more leaders and organizations weren’t doing, in their own ways, what we were doing? While on the leading edge, our work was not the first effort to engage and involve employees nor was it unique in the specifics of what we did. Our story was a local one within a larger company, but the deep insights and underlying  dynamics we discovered exist at all levels of organization: The newspaper, the newspaper industry, across industries and across all communities of people and life itself. Why didn’t United Airlines, and thousands of other enterprises (and the newspaper industry) do similar things long ago with the knowledge available to them?

In 1994, I left the Star Tribune to join a movement to transform how we lead, follow and work in organizations and institutions. Under new leadership, the workplace we created was destroyed in short order.

I delved into the deeper dynamics that led to our success at the Star Tribune. I attended a Meg Wheatley dialogue where we discussed the new sciences that led to our success before we knew about the new scientific knowledge. Meg talked of the Fortune 500 clients she had worked with in recent years. When she returned to visit those organizations, she saw no evidence of change or learning. She asked, “Where did the learning go?”

I spent 13 years consulting in organizations and writing about organizational transformation and the kind of leadership required for such change. The movement I had joined had success stories but, unfortunately, I watched leadership in our organizations and institutions regress instead of evolve in life-affirming ways. Promising change efforts were  destroyed routinely; their leaders marginalized. I asked the equivalent of “Where did the learning go?” over and over again.

Today, more than 20 years after Meg Wheatley’s question, we have the United Airlines story within the larger societal context that contains powerful forces for regression and dehumanization. Many feel disheartened. I believe the crazy and dangerous resistance to facts, truth, learning and knowledge along with the marginalization and demonizing of the powerless are the final fearful and desperate efforts of a mechanistic world view that no longer solves our problems. I believe an ecological and living system world view will emerge.

As the rate of change accelerates in the future now upon us, I do not believe that leaders (or anyone else) who want a sustainable enterprise and a good and relevant life can continue to refuse to learn, ignore new knowledge and run from the hard work of human and leadership development. And I believe that new leaders and everyday people who love to learn and relish the hard work of personal growth will emerge from the rubble of places like United Airlines. I believe this because I trust that humanity will, in the end, choose renewal over decline. But then, I am an optimist.

On a global scale, a life affirming awakening flowers in the midst of a strain of madness. We must nurture this movement. If we pay attention, we can see great things happening locally and regionally every day. I hope our human awakening also becomes a great remembering of what humanity has learned through the ages. I hope our conscious evolution and greater enlightenment as a species happens fast so we have time to turn back anti-human forces and the great forgetting not only in our organizations but throughout our human community.

Whether a leader, a celebrity or an everyday person, we can ask, “Am I learning and reinventing myself over and over again so that I can feel alive, be fully human and create a good life for myself and my family?”

8 thoughts on “Where Did the Learning Go?

  1. Fascinating piece, Tom, on so many levels. I share your optimism that humanity will chose renewal over decline. The most important word in that sentence is “chose.” The trouble in many organizations is less about bad choices than it is about allowing choice itself to be usurped by inertia. It’s just a guess on my part, but I suspect many of those “where did the learning go” experiences involved a default to inertia, a return to the rigidity of a standard operating procedure. Meaningful organizational change, like meaningful personal change, is hard, incredibly slow and subject to reversals by players who find the old way easier simply because it is, well, old. Choice has never been more important than it is right now. You defined and described the right ones very well. Fingers crossed that the right leaders make them.

  2. “I believe an ecological and living system world view will emerge … I trust that humanity will, in the end, choose renewal over decline.” May your optimism be contagious, Tom! The airline industry in particular could learn a few lessons from your book. Sadly, I fear they’ll have no motivation to do so until there are dire economic pressures.

  3. I keep reminding myself of the Hopi Elder teaching, “You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour . . . .” . I’m glad you’re in the River of Change with us.

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