I just finished readingNuts!by Kevin and Jackie Frieberg. It is the story of Southwest Airlines and the eccentricities of its founder Herb Kelleher and his employees. The book is not new, having been published in 1996, but its messages are timeless.

I think any company could take some of the philosophies from this book and make itself better - at least from a human resources point of view.

I thought writing about Nuts! is timely, considering The News will soon announce the winners of its "Best Contractor to Work For" contest. It also triggers the chicken or the egg discussion - you know, which comes first: good customer service or good employee relations?

I think you need to establish good employee relations before you can expect to create a reputation for good customer service. After all, you wouldn't have good customer service without happy, friendly, and helpful employees.

So what makes happy, friendly, and helpful employees? Answer: Having fun and acting as a team (being a nut).

Have Some Fun

Kelleher epitomizes his company's philosophy of "not taking itself seriously." Kelleher embodies the spirit of going to work and enjoying what one does - something that is often lacking in the workplace.

I suspect that contracting firms, as a rule, are not always fun places to work. But why is that? Maybe employees get too caught up in deadlines or customer demands, making them cranky, irritable, or just unable to comprehend what it is like to have fun in the workplace. Too often, having fun is replaced by clock watching, waiting for the day to end because the stress of the workplace is making life miserable.

Maybe we should all go out and buy a carton of packaged nuts and leave a package on everyone's desk or workbench - maybe on the seat of the service van or parts truck. The nuts, which are the only food served on Southwest flights, are a reminder that life should be fun, outrageous in fact.

Having fun is part of the Southwest culture, plain and simple. The company is very serious about how it treats its customers and concerned about its competition, but it doesn't take itself seriously.

Work As A Team

Southwest also embodies the spirit of teamwork. I can relate to that because one of the "Best Contractor" winners I recently visited makes it a point to swap its employees at certain times, putting them in the shoes of other people to learn about their jobs and how each person interacts with others in the company.

Southwest's version of this is its program called "The Cutting Edge." Southwest pilots exchange jobs with ramp employees to learn more about what goes on in and around the plane when it is at the gate. In turn, ramp workers go into the cockpit to learn what checklists the pilots go through when arriving or leaving the gate.

During the process, ramp workers learned that by putting their headsets on 30 seconds earlier than usual, they could begin their checklists with the pilots, reducing the amount of time the plane is at the gate. This small change, over the course of a day, could mean the difference between a plane being on time or 45 minutes late by the day's end. The bottom line: teamwork wins.

Naturalist Milton Olsen was quoted in a Southwest Airlines newsletter in which he used the behavior of geese flying in a "V" formation to point out the importance of teamwork.

"It has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in a ‘V' formation, the whole flock adds at least 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another."

John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-362-0317 (fax), or johnhall@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 01/19/2004