Processes are the structures of a working economy. Processes make us efficient. They enable us to work together within and across organisations, and with people from various disciplines. But they also make us mediocre. And mediocre may just not be enough in today’s crowded economy.

I was boarding a flight the other day and I couldn’t help but  notice how processes have invaded our lives. It’s no news that processes are the lifeblood of aviation. Processes ensures that our luggage magically finds its way to our final destination. Well, most of the times at least. Processes enable the boarding of hundreds of people into small flying metal containers. This is no trivial task. The complexity is possibly best illustrated by the people from later boarding groups who block the entrance as they anxiously bring themselves into launch position during pre-boarding. They must have some reasons for thinking “what if the plane leaves without me”. Processes also tell the captain what to do before take off. Very comforting indeed.

But it’s not only the aviation. Have you also noticed how business travelers spend time discussing the processes they had to carry out, to complete their projects?

To be fair, processes are important, even for simple tasks. One maintenance person tried to pass the queue of waiting passengers in the small jetway. He passed on the left side. To let him pass, the herd of passengers moved to the right. He made it in a short time. A few minutes later, his colleague faced the same endeavour. She tried the right side where the herd had now settled. It required significantly more time to pass. That happens when no processes are at work.

Processes do have advantages. The more critical the task the more we want processes to work.

It’s just that every now and again they are not beneficial, they are not sufficient.

 

The plane was fully packed. No more space for luggage. A tall passenger asked the flight attendant for help. His legs were too long to staple both his hand luggage and legs under the seat in front of him. The flight attendant stuck with the processes, referring to the filled overhead bins and the narrow space under the seat. The passenger clearly didn’t feel comfortable with the thought of being stuck in a sardine box for the next hours.

At the same time I had a problem too. My aisle seat left me plenty of leg space. However I did not leave any space for my bigger trolley. My legs though were not as long as the gentleman’s. The solution. We switched seats, trading the leg space in the aisle, for trolley space. While it doesn’t need an Einstein to come up with the idea, we had some creativity at work. This was creativity overcoming process thinking.

The fellow passenger was happy, I was happy. The airline might not be. Two rows of passengers were discussing the inflexibility of the airline.

Why didn’t the flight assistant bother? Because he was primarily in the logistics business, not in the customer service business. His was trained to make the standard processes work and ensure our safety on board. And nothing wrong with that. In many industries, like airlines, processes are a success factor. Their implementation ensures the high quality standards that customers look for. However, there is a problem.

 

Most airlines manage to make us feel safe today. Making us feel safe is not sufficient anymore. Today, we also want to feel comfortable. The more we have to travel, the more we care for a comforting experience. This reduces the stress of traveling. Processes are an enabler. They are not a differentiator though. Going beyond processes is the magic.

Companies pass the process sweet spot when they move up on Maslow’s Pyramid of human needs. They do it when they start catering to our emotional needs.

 

You’d think that it’s easy to provide processes and good services. Yet, finding the balance seems to be particularly difficult in some industries such as airlines. If you look at the customer reviews, there is a huge difference between companies that customers love and those that are less in favor. Only very few airlines manage to fulfill these needs. Those that do so manage to knock our socks off.

Could you imagine the CEO of United Airlines dressing as a female flight attendant and serving customers? Virgin’s Richard Branson did.

All airlines run the safety instructions. This is standard procedure. They have to do it, even if nobody listens to them anymore. Air New Zealand managed to make people listen again. They did this by going off-process. Their safety instructions are now demonstrated by the New Zealand Rugby Team. In the style of Men in Black!

One major Airline once refunded me hotel costs that arose due to a flight rescheduling. The interesting thing. The flight was rescheduled by their partner airline. And they refunded the cost after a quick phone call without even asking for any receipts. You can imagine, next time they are a bit more expensive than other airlines I will still chose them. Because they care for customers beyond processes. And this is how they earn back their spending on hotel cost.

 

So why is there such a wide spread between those airlines that make us wow and those that make us look forward to being home again?

It is because processes are a critical success factor in this industry. Aviation is built on processes to ensure our safety. And the more an industry depends on processes, the more difficult it is to have a culture that goes beyond the processes. Art doesn’t have a difficult time to impress us. Yet, if there were safety regulations in art, this might be more difficult.

 

When you assess a company, ask:

  • to what extend are processes a success factor in this industry?
  • how good does the company fulfill these processes?
  • does it enable them to play?

But then continue with the more challenging questions:

  • how does it manage to stand out?
  • did it build a culture of flexibility that enables it to cater to the those needs in the top of the pyramid?

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Also published on Medium.

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