Standard operating procedures: a necessary evil, or a shield for cowards?

Standard operating procedures: the fast track to mediocrity

United 3411, The Friendly Skies, and Standard Operating Procedures

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” — Oscar Munoz’ letter to United employees following United flight 3411

You can’t go wrong following standard operating procedures, right?

Oscar’s right. Nearly everyone involved in the incident with United 3411 followed standard operating procedures (I say this with the exception of the security officer who inflicted physical harm on the passenger). So (almost) nobody was in the wrong, right? Wrong. Compliance over creative thinking is a recipe for failure. Following standard operating procedures is the fast track to mediocrity. Or worse, disaster. And generally, the bigger the company, the more rigid the adherence to SOPs.

A New Compass: Standard Operating Principles

Does United need better standard operating procedures? Standard operating procedures have their place, especially in the aviation industry. I’m not against checklists or procedures. They’re tremendously helpful for managing complexity when used in the right context, and aviation is the perfect use case for a good old-fashioned SOP(see The Checklist Manifesto). But when issues arise that are outside the imagination of the procedure writers? United needs to give employees permission to go beyond standard operating procedures. To make a human call. Organisations are, after all, made up of humans.

No set of procedures can mitigate every possible risk or contingency. Following SOPs in the midst of disaster is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: it might feel productive, but you’re headed for a much bigger problem. Clinging to protocol can lead to mediocrity, waste, or in extreme cases, death.

“Gentlemen, I want you all to forget about the flight plan.” My favourite scene in Apollo 13 shows NASA’s Flight Director throwing out the flight plan (going to the moon) and introducing his team to the new mission: getting the crew home safely. Following SOPs would have gotten everyone onboard killed.

Instead of rigidly optimising for compliance to procedures, what if United threw out the rulebook and instead, design operations principles for what they can do for customers? A principle is defined as a ‘conscious choice between two equally valid alternatives’. If you’re not familiar with principles, or the ‘even / over’ statement, Sam’s summary here is really helpful for crafting meaningful principles. These principles should: serve United’s ambition (the friendly skies), guide action without dictating process, and empower employees to translate United’s values into tangible experiences.

Here are a few principles United could test drive.

Familiarity, even over formality

Friends are familiar. They know your likes and dislikes. If United truly owned ‘friendly’, they’d prioritise familiarity even at the expense of the new, the super-slick, the formalities that customers are so often subjected to. For example, United could give frequent flyers the option to program their preferences into their profile. Window seat, or aisle? Coffee or tea? The chicken or the pasta? All of these questions get asked every single time you fly. No matter how often you fly. Capturing preferences is a simple, meaningful way United could demonstrate that they know you.

A good time, even over on-time

Having a good time is often contingent on a flight being on time — so this would be tricky in the aviation business, but let’s look at a hypothetical. A flight is delayed by 30 minutes. United could make the standard apology over the loudspeaker, and customers could sit around feeling stressed and annoyed. Or United could run an impromptu game of trivia. Just like a pub quiz, with small prizes for passengers with the correct answers. Which would you rather?

Creative thinking even over compliance

Friends know when it’s worthwhile to bend the rules. If United gave their employees freedom to get a little creative even over rigid compliance (while still remaining safe), they’d probably have fewer headaches, and happier customers. Singapore Airlines Singapore Flying College is notorious for their rigid standards for flight attendants (Example: There are five approved hairstyles for Singapore Air’s flight attendants. A bun, for example, must measure between 6.5 and 7.0 centimeters wide, and be centered between the 1 and 3 o’clock positions on the back of the head.) What if being a United flight attendants became a moniker for something between a Girl or Boy Scout, Mary Poppins, and an Apple Genius? Someone who could diplomatically find a spot for your overhead luggage by working with (not yelling at) other passengers to find a little extra room. Who could also explain the perfect ear-pressurising technique to an angsty five year old. Who makes it their business to find a way to solve problems, even when it’s not required. Especially when it’s not required. Because they’re being friendly.

Principles unlock possibilities that procedures do not.

Let’s take it a step further.

Steps to Operationalising Ambition

If United’s ambition is to own “the friendly skies,” how might they operationalise “friendly?” Let’s start with the definition of the word ‘friendly.’ I like Merriam Webster’s version: “showing kindly interest and goodwill, not hostile, cheerful, comforting.” That’s a great ambition. Hands up, who doesn’t want a friendly airline? Maybe people who fly RyanAir or Tiger (difference being you know you’re trading off price for quality). But how could United own — really own — friendly? Here’s a start.

The world right now: anything but friendly skies.
  • The world right now. Ask: What is the world that your customers are operating in right now, like? Customers book tickets smartphones, take Ubers to the airport, and pick up keys to their holiday accomodation from a friendly Airbnb host. But going to the airport is an almighty nightmare: TSA agents on power trips, standing in lines, flight delays, having to pay for overweight luggage, screaming children on flights. It’s enough to put the most savvy travellers in a state of anxiety.
Merriam Webster’s definition of ‘friendly.’
  • The world we want. Ask: What does the world we want look and feel like? The easy answer — we want customers to experience “the friendly skies.” But what does “friendly skies” actually mean? When I think of friendly travel — I think of taking road trips with friends in college. A few good friends, your favourite tunes, snacks, the open road, and the idea that anything could happen. In fact, the anticipation of the road trip was almost as good as the trip itself: making playlists (or burning CDs, in my case), deciding where to stop along the way. Why couldn’t flying feel like this?
  • Signals and metrics. Ask: If we really committed to our ambition, what things will happen or not happen to signal that we are delivering on our ambition? A common metric in the aviation business is on-time flight departures. On time departure is a good metric. But it’s not a great metric, if the ambition is “friendly.” What are signs that you’re friends with someone? Friends make you laugh. What if United measured laughs per hour on flights? The number of conversations struck up on United flights? Friends introduce you to their friends. What if United introduced passengers to each other with icebreakers and games during flight delays?
Could flying be great again?
  • Behaviour and culture. Ask: What behaviours are needed for our employees to deliver on our ambition? If United really wanted to give people the experience of “the friendly skies”, they recognise and reward friendliness. Even over following standard operating procedures. How might United encourage this behaviour? To start with a few…United could launch the Friendliest Employee awards, allocate budget to employees to brighten customers’ day’s, introduce a United buddy system to match new employees with employees who share their interests, and launch employee education courses on the Art of Small Talk.
  • 100 things. Ask: What are 100 things we could do to be a truly friendly company? No idea is too ridiculous. Good ideas come from lots of ideas. The trick is to think about all of the tiny interactions that people have a business. How are the phones answered? What’s the email auto-reply? How are longstanding employees treated? What does a new starter’s first day look like? How are flight delays handled? Here are some thought starters. Give away complimentary drink tickets for the first 50 people in line to board. Print icebreakers on boarding passes to prompt conversations with fellow passengers. Hire stand up comedians as gate agents who are so entertaining that by arriving late, customers would not only risk missing your flight, they’d risk missing a show. And if you’ve oversold a flight? Don’t start with your lowest bid. Make it fun. Start with the highest bid. Let’s say $2,000 for the first person, then $1500 for the next passenger, then $1000, and so on. You’d have passengers clamouring to get off the flight.

There’s so much United could do. But only if they take an active role in operationalising their ambition. Jeff Bezos would call United a Day 2 company, where process becomes a proxy for desired result. “As companies get larger and more complex,” Bezos writes in his 2016 letter to shareholders, “there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.”

Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

Bottom line: The problem with standard operation procedures is that they can act as blinders to ambition. How do you remove them? Get clear on ambition, identify what kind of behaviours will get you there, and cultivate operating principles that empower employees to deliver on that ambition. Ask the question: Do we own the process or does the process own us?

If United chooses to own their processes, and not the other way around, they could own the friendly skies. But they won’t get there following standard operating procedures.

Thanks to Eugene Chung, Martin Brown, and Cameron Grice for reading drafts of this piece.



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