The Smartest Guys on the Tarmac?

As I recently reported, Delta has made systemic changes that are improving many measures of quality simultaneously.  Their financials are also improving, with the airline reporting a net income of $2.7 Bn last year. Put these two together and you have a strong indication that they are successfully applying lean principles to the airline industry.

This is great, and as a long-time Delta flyer (and million miler), I wish them well. But a recent write up by Jens Flottau  in the industry standard Aviation Week does raise a red flag.

You see, the real key to lean is orientation, and a great rule for orientation is to stay paranoid. No matter how good you are, there is somebody out there who will learn from your experience and who, because they aren’t the industry leader, is hungrier. More motivated. Leaner. Dangerous.

Nokia, for example, used to own the cell phone business. As late as 2007, they held 41% of the global mobile market (compared to today’s industry leader, Samsung’s 25%) but today are down to 15% and “in the low single digits” in smartphones:

But when Nokia was on top, nobody could touch it. That kind of success eventually bred an obstinate attitude and vulnerability that was exposed first by the Motorola Razr, and then more fully by Apple’s iPhone.

From industry titan to extinct in only seven years (Nokia’s mobile business is, as of today, Microsoft Mobile Oy). Nemesis does, as they say, follow Hubris. Only the paranoid … you know.

So when the Av Week article quotes Delta CEO Richard Anderson as saying:

“We are just better at it,” he says, referring to Delta’s relatively low maintenance cost on aging aircraft.

and underlings as lauding:

“It has been an amazing story of change,” Cortelyou says. “This company had been coasting, but Richard brought leadership.”

They may all be right, and from what I read, they probably are. But the danger once you get on top comes not from an orientation that’s wrong — all impressions of a dynamic universe lag in some areas — but from an orientation that becomes locked. And confirmation that you’re right is the best way to freeze an orientation tight.  What you get, then is confirmation bias, or as Chuck Spinney once called it, “incestuous amplification.” We’re talking that implicit guidance and control feed from orientation back to observation.

Incestuous amplification is such an appealing addiction — the more locked in you are, the happier you get — beguiling, entrancing, and fatal, that you must be constantly on the lookout for it. It is extremely difficult to detect from the inside, although statements like “we are the best at …” should be taken as warning signs. Even if they’re true. Especially if they’re true.

Certainly a lot got edited out of Flottau’s draft (am I ever familiar with that process!) so we may be missing some important nuances in the story. If not, though, I certainly hope there’s somebody standing behind Anderson in the chariot whispering warnings in his ear.


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