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High Performance Organizations Go Through Transformation Constantly

By Howard Putnam
Former CEO Southwest Airlines & Braniff International
Speaker, Author of The Winds of Turbulence

“The rules of engagement have changed” in government and in business. They also changed in aviation on 9-11. We learned that negotiation no longer works with suicide killers. We have to be proactive and take charge and the same is true in government and business.

High performance organizations must be designed to be flexible, very flat to minimize bureaucracy, highly productive and able to transform themselves overnight to meet any unexpected turbulence. They must be nimble and quick just like SWAT teams. It is no longer possible to provide every service that every citizen asks for. Revenues from taxes and fees are no longer a certainty from year to year. The future will be a roller-coaster.

A clear and succinct vision (100 words or less) that every employee in the organization understands is a necessity if you want to make an impact. It is key that every organization knows “what business they are in.” As we wrote the vision at Southwest Airlines, years ago, we figured out that we were not in the traditional airline business, we were in “mass transportation.” That requires a totally different mentality and focus on what we needed to do best: Focus on simplicity, high productivity of people, of facilities and aircraft, shorten process times and be the lowest cost operator in the industry. We also “hired attitudes” and taught them skills to fit our business. Our culture supported the business and vision and outstanding customer service and profitability were the results.

The entire organization, all employees, shared in the recognition and profitability. That is a powerful motivator in high performance organizations, and government must innovate concepts in that arena as well.

This model has worked for Southwest for over thirty years and they have been profitable every year. They have thrived through every down cycle due to their low costs, high performing organization and value proposition that consumers understand and eagerly purchase.

Every governmental organization must rethink their purpose and vision. What do you do best? What business are you really in? Prioritize your resources and focus on those services that provide the most bang for the buck. The cost structure models being used today in government and in many businesses will not get you to the next level of performance. It is far beyond not filling vacancies, or holding the spending line on a function or service. Levels of management, specific functions and services will have to be eliminated, not just cut back. If you have a disease in your elbow, it does no good to cut off your hand.

One of the key responsibilities of a leader is to drive the vision home to all constituents and to take complexity out of the decision making process. Performance results when people believe and belong.

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