Why? Because We LUV You. Different types of work and the organization of types of work have been studied by those interested in business leadership and organization development for decades. When a categorically new business emerges on the scene, or when a mature business invents a strikingly effective new approach to business, the textbooks and Harvard Business Cases get dusted off and circulated anew. Such is the case with the study of Southwest Airlines, a company that turned the airlines business on its head -- or rather, on its hub and spokes orientation -- by developing a more efficient and economical way to approach the business of domestic airlines (Goudreau, 2007). Southwest isn't necessarily an innovative company, but it has worked to establish systems that work and then has diligently protected those systems. The company's determination to stick with what works against the pressure to get in line with its competitors is remarkable -- but it is a business strategy that has panned out quite extraordinarily well (Braneatelli, 2008).
Relational Coordination. Relational coordination can be thought of as the management of independent tasks -- the integration of tasks, accomplished through high quality communication, but also through high quality relationships. Gittell (2010) suggests that the quality of work relationships can be measured by the degree of mutual respect, shared goals, and shared knowledge evident in those transactions. Gittell argues that relational coordination theory can be applied to 'work processes in which multiple providers are engaged in carrying out highly interdependent tasks under conditions of uncertainty and time constraints" (2010, p. 3).
Work System Design. The term adhocracy was first made popular by Alvin Toffler in the early 1970s, and picked up by Henry Mintzberg in his management theories and framework for analyzing work organizations. An adhocracy was defined by Waterman (1993) "any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results." An adhocracy takes shape, generally, in order to solve problems efficaciously. A changing environment incubates an adhocracy, such that, innovative, sophisticated, and technical systems are generated in order for the organization to thrive and excel. In an adhocracy, all associates have both responsibility and authority in their areas of specialization in the coordination of their efforts. Without the weighty hierarchy present in a bureaucracy, associates in an adhocracy are able to take actions that affect the future of the organization. Mintzberg and Toffler both saw bureaucracy as an "old school" organization and adhocracy as its modern, improved corollary.
Quality and efficiency. Southwest is a master of the lean team. This organizational adaptation fits well with Waterman's argument that "teams should be big enough to represent all parts of the bureaucracy that will be affected by their work, yet small enough to get the job done efficiently" (2010). Thus, adhocracy and relational coordination agree on this point: The design of work systems can undermine or support the effectiveness of work teams. Gittell (2010) argues that "relational coordination appears to have a significant positive impact on key measures of performance, including both quality and efficiency."
Shared goals, knowledge, & mutual respect. One of the ways that relational coordination contributes so mightily to quality work and efficiency is that it permits a high level of worker-role interchangability. When employees share knowledge and are frequent and excellent communicators, they can more readily step into the "work streams" of colleagues. Most Southwestern employees start work that others will finish and a system of distributed leadership enhances the company's ability to capitalize on employees' talents. With such a high level of interchangeability, the company is able to support individual employees in their need for flexibility in their efforts to maintain work-life balance and to quickly adjust to any employee churn. No less important is the capacity of the company to respond to the vagaries of their industry that cause them to resort to leaner configurations from time to time. Southwest is known for its ability to weather periods of fiscal crisis without the tremendous layoffs of its peers (Braneatelli, 2008). From circumstances that foster the shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect required for successful role interchangeability, a phenomenon known in the literature as mutual adjustment (Gallant, 2010). The mutuality of coordinated work implies a level of conscientiousness that is frequently seen in companies with highly motivated employees who are confident that they are valued by the company.
Managing Motivation. Southwest Airlines is an excellent example of efficient organizational systems and structure (Braneatelli, 2008). The flexibility that the company has achieved and maintained since its early days at LUV field have put it in good stead to deal with the not insubstantial changes in the airlines industry. By all measures, Southwest is way ahead of the pack (Braneatelli, 2008). But the company excels in another arena, as well. Southwest hires employees very carefully, looking for just the right set of personal attributes that will lead to excellent implementation of the corporate values. Southwest employees have to be willing to accept responsibility for the distributed leadership that is core to their business model.
Employees also must exemplify the corporate values with regard to the way that they interact with each other and with customers. Few organizations openly state that they value employees first, customers second, and stockholders last -- but Southwest Airlines does just that, and it expects employee motivation to reflect those values. Southwest airlines hires they best people they can, who are the best fit with the company, and then rewards them regularly and somewhat ostentatiously. There is an ongoing effort to exhaust every conceivable way to recognize excellent work performance -- everyone at Southwest is involved in the effort.
To: My Associates
Re: Gittell, J.H. (2003). The Southwest Airlines Way: Use the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
I just finished an excellent book by Jody Hoffer Gittell who is a professor in Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. In the book, The Southwest Airlines Way: Use the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance, Dr. Gittell combines her strong background in research, having graduated from New School for Social Research, with her management expertise from her doctoral studies at MIT Sloan School of Management.
Contrary to what the book title might indicate, it is not about soft interpersonal relationships and ways to "make nice" at work. Rather the book is an empirical investigation into the performance of airlines and their level of relational coordination. It is useful to distinguish how Dr. Gittell uses the term relational coordination. According to Gittell, relational coordination is "a mutually reinforcing process of interaction between communication and relationships carried out for the purpose of task integration" (2003, p. 301).
Dr. Gittell has conducted research for a number of years that focused on the street-level, front-line workers in the healthcare and airline industries. Gittell's (2003, 2010) research led her to theorize that work that is highly independent can most effectively be coordinated through work relationships that are characterized by "shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect." Further, her research illustrates how the configuration and functioning of work systems interacts with relational coordination in a positive, supportive manner or in a negative, inhibitor way.
As in many of our shared readings, I would like to see us spend some time thinking about how the "take-aways" from this book can be incorporated into the everyday fabric of our work culture. We previously discussed the culture of Southwest Airlines in our meetings, and I believe this is a natural extension of that discussion. As you read through the book, I would like you to particularly attend to the following:
There is mutual reinforcement between the dimensions of relational coordination:
High quality relationships are characterized by: Shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.
High quality communication may be characterized as: Frequent communication, timely communication, accurate communication, and problem solving communication.
Low quality relationships are characterized by: Functional goals, specialized knowledge, and disrespect.
Low quality communication may be characterized as: Infrequent communication, delayed communication, inaccurate communication, and "finger-pointing" communication.
If you would, please be ready to discuss Exhibit 8: Impact of Relational Coordination on Production Possibilities Frontier at our next meeting. I particularly emphasize this diagram as its basis (economics and finance) will be familiar to you -- and because I believe the graph does a good job of portraying the reasonable objections to an emphasis on relational coordination that are likely to emerge in our discussion of its applicability to our business. Thank you.
Hub 'n' Spoke vs. Point-to-Point: A Relational Coordination Game.
Goal. The goal of the game is to raise the performance of the different airlines to the position held by Southwest Airlines. Based on the linear regression scores of popular airlines (as shown below in Exhibit 1 from Gittell's publication), Southwest Airlines is the winner for both relational coordination and overall rating on the airline performance index.