Nov 22nd, 2019

Freedom in the System

As you scale your business, you start putting systems into place. They take the form of processes, procedures, rules and regulations. It is, in many ways, the only way you can scale beyond a handful of people. But if you are not careful, you create not only bureaucracy but will stand in your own way.

Take my recent experience with America’s beloved airline Southwest. For better or worse I have frequent flyer status on Southwest — which gets me access to their early boarding line (Southwest has a pretty solid boarding system where they board you by number). My wife, who was on the same flight, had a boarding number slightly behind me. When we started the boarding process, I asked if we can board together — the gate agent rudely proclaimed that Southwest has a strict “boarding by group”-policy (which is already a little off-putting, given that I am a frequent flyer and you would think that they are trying to be nice to their better customers — but hey, it’s fine). When I then proceeded to take my wife’s suitcase in addition to my own (to not have her deal with the luggage), the boarding agent effectively lost it and loudly proclaimed that I can’t board with more than two pieces of luggage and that she would close the jet bridge and deplane me should I proceed. Quite frankly — this feels utterly senseless as the total number of pieces of luggage between my wife and I didn’t increase, just the person dragging it down the jet bridge changed. And it is a great example for systems gone wrong: Southwest has two policies — which, individually, make a ton of sense: “Board by boarding group” and “two pieces of luggage per passenger”. Following them blindly gets you to a point where I will surely think twice if I want to take my next flight on this airline… (*)

Here is what we can learn from this for our own businesses: Systems are good and necessary. And create ways for people to route around the system if it makes sense and is in the long-term interest of the organization.

Freedom in the system creates happier customers (and better businesses).

(*) I complained to Southwest’s customer support team. They sent me a friendly, alas a little boilerplate-esque response and offered two vouchers for both my wife and I. It is a good gesture but doesn’t really address my annoyance — which is their gate agent treating me like crap and idiotically staying inside of their system.

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