"We know it when we see it, but the converse is also true: We know it when we do not see it." In September, 2015, Oscar Munoz made his first public appearance as the new CEO of United Airlines. He started with an apology.[i] After anonymously experiencing a terrible flight on United, he said of the merged Continental and United Airlines: “This integration has been rocky. Period,” he said. “We just have to do that public mea culpa. … The experience of our customers has not been what we want it to be.” To me this was so refreshing! Just before taking over as CEO he took a flight from Chicago, one of United Airlines' major hubs. Munoz watched as two people were denied boarding because the flight had been oversold. He sat in a cramped 50-seat regional jet for 30 minutes because the plane was delayed on the tarmac, and waited at the other end too because of backups at the gate. He then waited five hours for his luggage. He struck up a conversation with other passengers - baiting them about the long delays. They agreed, but to his surprise they immediately followed up with: “Wasn’t that woman nice on that flight?” They were speaking of the flight attendant, Jenna. Oscar realised that Jenna's good grace and excellent manners had been the highlight of an otherwise terrible flight. It was a watershed moment for Oscar.
“Everybody on that flight remembered that,” Munoz said. “The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people.”Companies merge for financial synergies, to get additional capabilities they otherwise lack, to acquire new technologies, and for many other reasons. Way down the list, if it is there at all, is the customer. As Oscar learned, merging two bad cultures does not magically produce a positive, purposeful culture. He has his work cut out for himself. But he has the right perspective and passion. Lean Leadership too often brings to mind leaders who slash costs, cut fat, and streamline the organisation so it is an efficiency machine. But a real Lean leader starts with the customers and the people who serve the customers. Munoz was becoming a Lean leader. In lean terms he went to the gemba, that is, where the core work of the organisation is done and where the customers are served. Unfortunately, he seems to have done it by chance. He wanted to visit his daughter and happened to experience what the rest of United and Continental customers experience all too often. That was the start of what he calls his ‘learning tour.’ The passion and focus on the customer is a great starting point, but there is more to Lean leadership. How will United transform from a poorly operated airlines with disengaged employees to one that gets everything right? A smiling face is nice, but most of us want to get to our destination without delays, in a comfortable seat, and have our luggage show up as it is supposed to. Apparently integrating the reservation systems of the two airlines was another disaster. Munoz is quoted as saying wishfully: “If I get maybe 5,000 Jennas working through this, I think I can make it work.” But that is not going to happen. What he has to do is develop a lot more than 5,000 Jennas. He needs to build a culture of people in all parts of the airline who have Jenna’s passion, commitment, and the skills to improve every aspect of operations and customer service. In lean we speak of kaizen or continuous improvement. Neither of these airlines has been continuously improving and it is unlikely they have the skills for this. They need to develop lean leaders at all levels with the improvement and people-development skills to meet the major challenges ahead. They do have one thing going for them though - a passionate CEO who is tired of poor service and is beginning to understand the company exists to serve customers. [i] http://www.heraldrecorder.org/business/like-many-united-fliers-in-recent-years-oscar-munoz-was-recently-on-a-lousy-flight-to-chicago-business-news-oscar-munoz-20154944/