Businesses, U.S. Military Can Learn From Southwest's Unique Business Model

Southwest Airlines is famous for being a one-of-a-kind company, with little hierarchy or bureaucracy and a culture that empowers employees.

It's next to impossible for an established business or organization to duplicate Southwest's unique model. But one former executive of the airline, business consultant Luke Gill, says there's a lot that other companies and even the military can learn from Southwest.

The secret to Southwest's lean, efficient and low-cost ways, Gill says, is a corporate culture that encourages employees to take the initiative, rather than stifling them with a command-and-control bureaucracy. People are expected to make decisions and implement them quickly, without a lot of meetings or bucking issues up the chain of command.

"It's an empowered culture," Gill says. "Everyone is empowered to do things, especially the people dealing with customers. It's a culture where everyone has a stake in the company."

After a 24-year career in the Air Force, nine years in the airline industry and seven more at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth, Gill says he's got a pretty good sense of why organizations work well or don't. One way to make them work better is to emulate Southwest by creating systems and processes that are lean and flexible, and enable employees to be innovative.

Gill, who lives in Fort Worth, left Lockheed this year and joined the Thomas Group, an Irving consulting group. He's now trying to sell the company's services to others in the aerospace industry, airlines and the military.

Changing cultures is crucial for any company to make significant performance improvements, Gill said. But a CEO can't just walk out into the office or onto the factory floor and announce that the culture needs to be changed.

Instead, it should be changed one small step at a time by changing how things are done, measuring the improvements and gradually gaining adherents. "Our product is process improvements that drive rapid results that result in culture changes," Gill said.

As competition intensifies in all industries, companies are increasingly looking for ways to cut costs and boost productivity. Gill says the same thing is occurring in the armed forces where, faced with tighter budgets, military commanders are looking for outside help to streamline the systems that provide supplies and spare parts, and repair and maintain equipment.

Aircraft logistics and support are Thomas' forte, a specialty he hopes will lead to a lucrative consulting practice. In the Air Force, he was a maintenance and logistics officer in charge of keeping combat aircraft flying in far-flung outposts; he also served a stint at the Pentagon and became director of maintenance at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. He retired and spent two years in maintenance management at Continental Airlines and three more at Northwest Airlines, where he was charged with improving performance.

Gill joined Southwest in 1995 as vice president of maintenance and engineering. "I've always been someone who was trying to do things better and faster," Gill said, "so Southwest fit my ideal."

After three years in which he became thoroughly indoctrinated into the "Southwest way," Gill was recruited by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth as vice president of product support. In 2000, he was drafted to join the company's F-35 joint strike fighter team and led the effort to develop the processes and systems that, it is hoped, will make the aircraft far more reliable and less costly for the military to operate than its predecessors.

In the past, 70 percent of the military's spending on aircraft came after they were purchased, in spare parts, repairs and maintenance.

"Our goal with JSF was to cut that 70 percent in half," Gill says. Time will tell how well the system works, but Lockheed and military officials say they are confident that the aircraft will be far less troublesome and costly to operate.

Gill was recruited because of his wide experience in commercial aviation practices and to sell both the company's staff and the military on the concepts, said Tom Burbage, Lockheed executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program.

"At the time, what we needed on JSF was a visionary," Burbage said, someone "who could see how to improve logistics, and a missionary, somebody who had the passion this was the right thing to do and see it through."

Gill helped change the culture of the JSF team, Burbage said: "I would say he was the right guy at the right time."

There are plenty of other opportunities ahead, Gill says, for him to plant the seeds of culture change. The airline industry and even the military, he says, must make enormous changes in the way they operate, maintain and repair aircraft to cut costs and boost productivity.

What they need is a little outside help, he says, especially from someone who has seen and understands the successful Southwest culture.

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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