The Skies Still Ain’t So Friendly

A Five Minute Read

This afternoon, I received an email from United Airlines’ CEO Oscar processesMunoz. (I’m no one special, it was blasted to every Mileage Plus member; plus, it was sent from their press relations account.) This is the overdue apology for one of his employees summoning armed law enforcement to beat the living daylights out of one his paying customers who wouldn’t give up his seat to a flight attendant late for work.

The subject line of the email is “Actions Speak Louder than [sic] Words”.

They sure do! Just ask David Dao!

Oscar Munoz is No Man of Action

Perhaps this is the CEO’s mea culpa for his actions immediately following this incident, a cocktail of doing absolutely nothing garnished with insulting statements (words) that only added to the volatility. Perhaps he was scared he would do the wrong thing, so he listened to those who told him to do nothing. (Perhaps the worst thing to do).

He likely didn’t become CEO by demonstrating timidity and indecisiveness; this, however, is classic Man of Excuses behavior (not knowing what his customers value or how to show them respect, lacking empathy, waiting until conditions are perfect to act).

Munoz (or his marketing department) writes that “it” (the Dao Incident) “happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values.”

That’s bullshit.

Values trump policy, every time. That’s what makes them values. Otherwise, they’re just words.

The email never defines which values were ignored.

Calling them “shared” values is only more asinine, because if they were truly shared, no one in the organization would stand for such “corporate policy”.

Values are more than words. Values are demonstrated by actions that, no matter the circumstances, remain consistent. (Let’s say you oversleep, and don’t want to be late for work. You may skip breakfast, you might not brush your teeth or shower, you could possibly break the speed limit, but you will always put on pants before leaving the house. You would never even conceive of heading to work dressed like Donald Duck.)

Procedures, Not Process

“Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.” Everyone at some point in their career makes that trade– they follow the rules, even the “dumb ones”– but rarely do people follow a rule so blindly that they ask for armed backup to do a solid for a coworker.

This line of reasoning underscores why “business process management” is a complex and nuanced endeavor, as opposed to crafting policy. Policies – “our procedures” – are bureaucratic, depersonalized, binary, and require little discretion. Processes – at least, well-designed ones – are effective, efficient, and adaptable. That is, process management recognizes that meeting customer needs requires active thought, real situational awareness.

Every process needs clear, measurable objectives of what it is trying to accomplish; its subprocesses should, as well. Six-Sigmen advocate “SIPOC” analysis of processes – that is, documenting who Supplies what Inputs to the Process, and what Outputs are expected by Customers.

That would be a great start for Munoz and his team but traditional SIPOC analysis can ignore the desired goals at each step. A good process (or subprocess) needs to define:

  • What are the key results and benefits we need to accomplish?
  • What are the outcomes in addition to the outputs that we need to achieve?
  • What constraints need to be considered while taking action?

Knowing what to accomplish, and being able to balance against constraints, opens the decision-making process. So, instead of “I need to get my coworker to Kentucky; I should get someone to bang a customer’s face against his tray table until he gives up his seat”, the gate agent can explore alternatives, such as “Maybe I can put my coworker on an American or a Delta flight”, or “Maybe it would be cheaper and easier to hire a shuttle van” or “Maybe I can increase the incentive for passengers until someone bites.”

(In the email, Munoz – or his PR flack – describes some fixes to “procedures getting in the way”. By describing new procedures.)

Not a Training Problem

Nothing in the email mentions that United’s official after-action report was,coincidentally, also released today (nor does it acknowledge Dao’s settlement was paid today). Recommendation Six calls for “additional annual training”.

Training is important; there are tricks of the trade to defuse difficult situations and learnable techniques to maintaining a calm demeanor. But what exactly is the training deficiency here? If we stipulate – as Munoz’ ghost writer does – employees should be doing “what they know is right”, then they already know the important stuff.

This is a classic example of Binney’s Second Law. Munoz’ repeated attempts to blame the passengers, and then avoid any action himself, underscores the lack of personal accountability that must run rampant throughout the organization. Even in “his” email, he doesn’t take any responsibility nor does he describe what he will be doing differently in the weeks to come.

If anything, employees need to learn what these objectives are, and how to use them to make decisions. They need to learn that when there are conflicting objectives (passenger goals and UA’s financial goals and UA’s operating goals clearly don’t align), which takes priority. This will go a long way toward Recommendation Nine, “Empower Employees”.

Words, Not Actions

Munoz (or an intern) writes of United’s promise to customers to treat them with “the deepest sense of dignity and respect.” Those are two words rarely paired with airline service; ultimately, though, they remain just words. What actions will UA employees be taking that demonstrate that?

To properly set expectations, leaders need to articulate specific behaviors they want to see – as if they were giving stage directions – rather than lofty platitudes. It would mean a great deal to know exactly what Munoz considers dignified behavior, far more than knowing he approved an email calling for it.

Actions do speak louder than words. What we do and how we do it demonstrates who we are and what we value. “Show, don’t tell” is a maxim for a reason. United Airlines promises “action” but delivers “activities” and a whole lotta “words”. While not the only action needed, United would be well served to understand, articulate, communicate, and demonstrate its objectives, at every level of the organization.


As an aside – I bet the cost of the labor hours spent debating how to capitalize the subject line would have more than paid for a Gulfstream to take the four UA employees from Chicago to Lexington. And, like so much else United does, they got it wrong. Prepositions are generally not capitalized in headlines, but the norm  is to capitalize all words greater than three letters. However, in this instance – “louder than words” – they are using the word “than” as a conjunction, not a preposition, so it really doesn’t matter. (OK, if it were a comparative coördinating conjunction, maybe…) The subject line would have been more correct if it had read “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.”

Actually, a better headline would have been “On Behalf of United, I Apologize.” But that would have required a full rewrite.