Southwest paradox (2)

A couple more thoughts on The Southwest Paradox I blogged yesterday.

When we chatted Michael Herman pointed out that the unsuccessful airlines can’t be separated clinically from Southwest. They’re the context in which Southwest is successful. You could say their failure is a key part of Southwest’s success. And simply replicating Southwest will change the context and make the model invalid. (Does this make sense?)

I suppose it’s like a phenomenon I’ve seen in groups. One person in the group takes the role of, say, troublemaker. And often gets scapegoated for it. But if he stops, or becomes compliant, after a while someone else starts causing trouble… as if there is a systemic need for troublemaking, it’s not down to one person just being difficult.

If everyone in the group pursued some daft “best practice” for group behaviour, the trouble doesn’t get made. But eventually, the system demands some trouble. The model fails.

“How-to” modelling always strips bits of a complex system of some part of their context, rendering the model questionable at best.

This is one reason I dislike all these complicated diagrams that are used to “explain” how to run companies. It seems to me that parts of the puzzle of organisations get modelled in labourious detail and then cut away from all the complex things that feed them. You get clever, complicated, intimidating diagrams that are – quite literally – removed from reality.

Another fragment for my emerging preference for…Simple Ideas, Lightly Held, Joyfully Practised.

8 thoughts on “Southwest paradox (2)

  1. sirshannon

    I think the problem is that your “paradox” assumes that other companies will copy the methods of more successful companies if given the chance. There would be a paradox if that were the case, but simply letting everyone know how they run their business doesn’t mean that SouthWest’s methods will be copied.

    I think that previously successful companies that are now relatively unsuccessful are clinging to their favorite faulty business methodologies and that is why they are unsuccessful. They aren’t going to admit that SW is onto something, they are going to cling to their sinking ship, insisting that they are smarter than SW all the way down.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comment, Sirshannon. That’s another good reason why modelling success is so fraught with problems.

    But even if they let go of their outdated model, they would have to create something new to succeed. Just copying Southwest – even if they wanted to – is unlikely to work.

  3. Cliff Allen

    You’re correct when you say that other airlines can’t beat Southwest Airlines by “modelling something that works, making the process explicit, and copying it.” This is primarily because the conditions that Southwest took advantage of when they started will never occur again.

    When all other airlines agreed to move from the tiny Love Field in Dallas to the giant DFW airport out in the country Southwest said, “No, we’ll stay at Love Field in downtown Dallas where our customers are.”

    By flying only within the state of Texas, Southwest was able to avoid the FAA regulations that the major carriers had to abide by.

    By refusing to be part of the computerized airline reservation system used by travel agents they cut costs by about 10%.

    Once they used these and many other unusual tactics to become established, they were then able to expand and become the success they are today.

    The key to their early success was being able to spot a set of unique market situations and move quickly before the window of opportunity closed.

  4. Tony Goodson

    Mmmm interesting. So if a group of mobile network suppliers are all hopeless, and a new one comes along that is radical, and different and better, the others will adjust to make them all hopeless again!

    So any new supplier to the market becomes just like the others, because that’s the model.

    That’s probably right. Occasionally, someone comes along that really does shake up the market and change it. All search engines were the same until Google came along. Mind you, all search engines are becoming the same again!! That’s why I’m not so sure Google will succeed.

  5. Emergent Strategies

    Success secrets ?

    [Update]: See Johnnie’s great follow up post – especially:
    This is one reason I dislike all these complicated diagrams that are used to “explain” how to run companies. It seems to me that parts of the puzzle of organisations get modelled in labour…

  6. fouro

    Cliff, that and the fact of Kelleher”s and King’s insistence that “where gonna have fun” as they scribbled their idea on the back of a napkin in a Texas departure lounge.

    I’m winging from memory here, but the conundrum that Johnnie frames re: LUV is their revulsion at the artificiality and inert “professionalism” businesses insist on harumphing about. Too many companies, it seems, have an odd “grown-ups behave this way, ‘Way X’ let’s call it. They then get mired in systems and language and imagery that dooms them to be “stodgy” and inarticualate–stymied–when faced with change. We all admit to not wanting to be our boring-old parents, then we go and duplicate their blinkered businesses mistakes also Silly.

  7. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments – I’m learning! I think combining what fouro and Cliff say, it’s clear that there are a myriad of special circumstances that played a part in Southwest, things that can’t be replicated and exported elsewhere.

    I’m still chewing on what Tony said… I guess there are a ton of “sytem effects” that we’re all missing.

  8. Fouroboros

    Chicken or Egg? Goal or Ambition…

    My new Skype pal and longer-term much-admired blogger, Johnnie Moore, has been pondering some good stuff. He began by wondering after Southwest Airlines’ success, then the meaning, matter and mirage of “goals”….


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