Today was the kind of day that business travelers tell horror stories about.
I’m speaking at two conference this week (MNSHRM and WISHRM), and today was the first day of a week of travel. It was supposed to be easy. I had just gotten my TSA Pre-Check, so security wasn’t a problem. And I was flying Southwest Airlines with a good boarding position (A 31 – not too shabby).
How hard could it be?
My husband dropped me off at the airport one hour and forty minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off. I figured I’d drop off the bag, breeze through security and grab a little breakfast.
And then I encountered this:
A line to end all lines. And it was even worse inside.
Turns out, Southwest had a massive computer system outage today. They couldn’t print boarding passes from many of the service desks. They couldn’t print baggage claim tickets.
They had to do EVERYTHING by hand – check in, boarding, manifest clearing – everything.
And you know what? They did it with a smile.
The skycaps worked quickly. They had their process down and did what they could to keep the mood light. (I got through that ridiculous line in 35 minutes.)
The boarding gate agent was funny and handled the craziness with some humor.
The flight crew acknowledge the challenges, kept the passengers informed, and did what they could to ensure everyone on the flight made it – even when security was backed up (seriously…get TSA pre-check).
It wasn’t just in my hometown where the employees did what they could to make the best of a terrible situation. Check out these employees in Las Vegas, handing out cold drinks to folks stuck in the hot sun:
Was everyone happy? Of course not. It was stressful for everyone involved. Not everyone saw exemplary service from Southwest employees, but overall, they have handled the ongoing problems pretty well.
In the event of this kind of crisis, how would YOUR employees perform? And what can you do to best ensure you’re ready to respond?
- Have a plan: The Southwest employees weren’t using sticky notes to process baggage. They had printed tags designed for manual checking. The gate agent had a protocol to process mobile and paper passes without computer access. If you don’t have a Plan B for your business process, you’ll have even more problems.
- Hire the right people: Southwest is very explicit about their culture and expectations for their employees – but they also make a pledge to do right by their people. (The “To Our Employees” clause…) By taking time to find the right people to carry out your organization’s work, you increase the likelihood that they will be able to respond to a challenge the way you want them to.
- Balance process with humanity: I can’t imagine the level of complexity Southwest faced with this system outage. Between the sheer number of passengers, Homeland Security requirements, and airport regulations, they could have chosen to approach this with a very command-and-control approach. Instead, I saw employees empowered to make decisions. I read examples of employees given the freedom to hand out cold drinks. I saw a flight crew take time to alleviate a passenger’s concern about a connecting flight when we took off late. Are you willing to let go in times of pressure and put the trust in your people to do the right thing?
They say that adversity does not build character, it reveals it.
What character will your people reveal?
[Disclaimer: I’m sure a LOT of people had a horrible travel day today, and many of them are annoyed and frustrated still. My experience may not be the same as others. If you had a bad start to your day, I really hope it got better!]