12/04/17, Peter Russian

United Breaks Guitars and People

leadership, empowerment, trust

“It’s never too late to put things right” says Oscar Munoz, Chief Executive of United Airlines who finds himself in the middle of some exceptionally bad turbulence this week.

The response from many to that potential truism might be “but what took you so long?”

After all, it’s not as if United haven’t been here before.  Except last time it was guitars they were breaking not people.

In 2009 musician Dave Carroll created a YouTube sensation with his song “United Breaks Guitars” which tells the story of how his precious $3,500 Taylor guitar was broken as it was thrown around by baggage handlers during a transit at Chicago. And, just like the events on flight 3411, it was the reaction of the company as much as the initial incident which reflected so badly on the airline.

The catchy refrain tells all:

You broke it, you should fix it,

You’re liable, just admit it

I should’ve flown with someone else, or gone by car

But United chose not to fix the problem for $3,500, and United Breaks Guitars has now been seen by 15 million people online. 

This week, Fortune magazine highlighted the guitar breaking farrago in its list of Top 5 Airline Industry Customer Service Failures.

How short the corporate memory must be within United Airlines. 

Organisations and people make mistakes. It’s integral to learning.  But if you don’t learn from mistakes your stock of good diminishes even more quickly than your stock price.

David Marquet has reflected on the culture of compliance that leads to this kind of public relations disaster.

What it serves to remind every business is that they are no longer in control, and that top down operating procedures which are inflexible to the environment are likely to expose the organisation to more risk.

The over booking problem arose because United wanted to get another air crew to Louisville. So the airline bosses imposed a decision and said to their people on the ground “fix our problem”.    

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” wrote Munoz in his internal memo to staff.  In other words – we tell people how to clear up the mess that we create.

How different things might have been if he was able to say “we trusted our employees to make the right decision for the customer”. 

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