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?”

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.”