The following post was ineligible to win a prize (free entry into our What To Do Now Online Seminar) because the author is a UAL employee. But we thought it at least deserved an honorable mention.
Making United Airlines financially airworthy is near and dear to me as not only am I an employee but I have an equity stake in the company thanks to the employee stock ownership program (ESOP).
The major problem facing United has been around for some time and has little to do with numbers and more to do with people issues. To survive in today's economy, chopping dollars from cost alone is not the magic wand that makes companies strong, flexible, and successful. This chainsaw approach -- as practiced by Dunlop, Wolff, Lorenzo, and that ilk -- to restructuring of companies is false economy in its purest form. Changing times need new attitudes so we need to offer a kind of safety no other U.S. airline offers!
United is a stratified, old school company that operates in the old-economy, top-down command and control process. Today United Airlines is several hundred independent companies that voraciously compete, undermine, or ignore each other. This structure supports, if not encourages, waste and discontent while it defeats innovation. United has survived this long on sheer momentum due to its size and market impact. United's ESOP banked major concessions from employees at levels that greatly exceeded the value of stock issued. ESOP's short-term windfall did not enable UAL to take-off. It only allowed the unpowered descent, of an organization that is rife in inefficiencies, to glide a bit further.
The change that almost was came to UAL in 1994 when Jerry Greenwald arrived full of the promise of rebuilding United from the inside out with a model that would replace the existing gentrification with the time proven culture of employee empowerment.
Greenwald stated numerous times that if his management team did not get onboard with the change they would be gone. He invested heavily in rolling out this "culture change" to employees, yet his failing was never redefining and communicating management's new function and removing those who failed to see the immediacy and legitimacy of this change within a process-driven environment. Greenwald also set up conflict within departments between the managers who felt they were being squeezed out and employees happy to gain control over work processes.
Regardless of this oversight in planning, the engine under United started to build power, but because of this crossed flight path the climb of United soon stalled as fearful managers undermined or ignored the culture change. Without active oversight of an involved and cross-functional management team, UAL employees, to varying degrees in different departments, over-rotated on this new-found freedom and stalled. These same leaders and managers that had removed themselves entirely from operations then used the over-rotation as justification to return to command and control.
It is said that "it is better to never know freedom than to taste it and have it removed." After Greenwald departed, the disconnection of employees became more widespread and deeper as top-down command and control came back with a vengeance.
To make United soar, the new management team needs to respect and enable employees to do what they do best. Chart a course that includes empowerment at the lowest level all the way through the Glass House (WHQ) with clearly defined responsibilities, accountabilities, and institute a reward system that compensates based on departmental and company goals. Every employee has an active role in this new-economy organization if it is to work effectively.
Checks and balances assure our flight will smoothly transition to cruising altitude. Parachutes, not golden ones, need to be given to those who talk the talk but do not walk the walk (this is very important). The average employee wants to say with pride, "I work for United and it is the BEST airline in the business." Humans when given the opportunity, can and will, innovate better ways to perform tasks.
United today is confrontational, heavy-handed, and inefficient. It's a company where disconnected employees are forced to perform and the best result that will ever render is mediocrity, and in the new-economy mediocre means out-of-business. To be the BOB (best of the best) we need connected employees that have input into work processes, real ownership, reward for superior performance, and accountability for sub-par performance within your group and with the company at large. United needs to have a unified direction where we compete against American, Northwest, Southwest... not ourselves!
I think this is all so commonsense that it makes me laugh -- then I get very disgusted. The main reason people are staying away from flying is FEAR. United should get proactive. It should be the first airline to hire security to fly on every flight and advertise it: "Hi, I am an ex-FBI agent. Myself or someone with my skill set will be flying every day on every United flight segment. We look like anyone else, but we are there, and we will deal with whatever happens... so sit back and enjoy your flight."
Use ex-Special Ops people or retired Feds who have a background in this type of defense/offense. I am certain these people would enjoy the opportunity to travel and augment their income at the same time. An employee is not solely a cost, they are the heart, mind, and drive that make the company what it is, and in short the employee is the most valued asset a company has.
When you harness the sum power of a diverse and talented work force and add in the resources and mass that United has, how could we not be THE BEST OF THE BEST?
The above was originally posted on our UAL discussion board on Oct. 27, 2001.
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