Ultimus: Dave Ridley, Southwest Airlines on sustaining organizational excellence

I’ve been coached by Ultimus PR that I can’t mention all speakers by name since some of them are a bit skittish about seeing their names and case studies splashed across the internet, but Dave Ridley, SVP of marketing for Southwest Airlines, doesn’t have that problem. He was here today to discuss organizational excellence, and he started with a lot of jokes about how someone from an airline could even think about doing this, given the sad state of the industry over the past several years. However, Southwest has been a success story in the US domestic airline space since not only have they not gone bankrupt, they’ve actually been profitable and have never had a layoff. Furthermore, they have a reputation for great customer service, as well a providing a fun experience for their customers.

He started off talking about how you have to focus on process and metrics, what he calls “the smart stuff”, but that’s not enough to sustain organizational excellence; you also have to be “healthy”. He defines a healthy organization as one with minimal politics, a strong focus on the business that you’re in, low turnover and high morale. His mantra: relationships always precede sustained results. Not just external relationships with your customers, investors and partners, but internal relationships with your employees. I’m totally on board with this: when I ran a 40-person systems integration company in the late 90’s, my mantra was “the customer comes second”, and I always put my own team’s best interests ahead of everything else, which in turn motivated them to put the customers’ best interests first.

He told us some heart-warming stories of Southwest employees going above and beyond the call of duty, making the point that you can’t train people to provide this level of customer services: you have to hire them. Hire for attitude, train for aptitude. He points out that most of us spend much less time and effort hiring people than we do to spend the equivalent amount of money on software — what’s wrong with that? He challenged the audience to find the points of organization excellence that are deeply ingrained in their companies, and look for those when hiring people. Then, as he wrapped up the talk, he said it’s important to ignore the “customer comes first” mantra, and put your own people first. Weird to see the same words that I wrote 15 minutes ago (above) echoed, but it’s too true. He sees successful leadership, at least at Southwest, as being egoless: big titles don’t matter, prima donnas not permitted, everyone is equally important in contributing to organization excellence.

There’s so much that we do in BPM that works towards achieving organizational excellence, but sometimes we get caught down in the weeds and forget about the larger issues. Ridley’s talk was a good reminder of what’s really important in business.

One thought on “Ultimus: Dave Ridley, Southwest Airlines on sustaining organizational excellence”

  1. I very much liked this presentation as well. While his message was simple, sometimes in the midst of all we do day-to-day, we forget the most basic principles in business.

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