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Episode 20:
Corporate Culture

In business, culture “fills the gap” between what front line staff is trained to do and the day-to-day situations that arise in the workplace. Frequently in business books, Southwest Airlines is profiled as an example of a remarkably engaging corporate culture. But culture isn’t something management can just invent or copy. As illustrated by Southwest, in order for culture to be effective in shaping behavior, it must be authentic, genuine, evolve over time, and be “forged by competitive fires.” What lessons can your urgent care center learn from Southwest’s example? Alan Ayers has more!

Just Checking In: Episode 20 - Corporate Culture

Southwest Airlines is frequently cited as a company with a great corporate culture. But have you ever wondered why? Find out next on Just Checking In.

Good afternoon! This is Alan Ayers and I am Just Checking In from Southwest Airlines here at the Palm Beach International Airport to talk to you about the subject of corporate culture. Now, corporate culture is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit, but if I were to define it in one sentence, I would say that culture fills in the gaps, with the gap being between what you can train employees to do and what you need employees to do on the front line. So clearly you can’t train your employees to anticipate and respond to every single patient care situation they can encounter, but if you have a strong enough culture and the employees are bought into that culture, the culture will start to define their behavior when it’s not defined otherwise.

Now Southwest is frequently brought up as an example of a very strong corporate culture. But what’s interesting about Southwest and the significance of the Southwest story, is it demonstrates that culture just isn’t invented, it actually is tried in the fire. So if you look at the history of Southwest, in the early 1970s, Southwest was an airline that had four planes. They flew oil men from Dallas to Houston and San Antonio and it was kind of like the Hooters of the sky. Their flight attendants wore hot pants, they wore go-go boots. It was just a party in the air for these oil men. Well in Dallas/Ft. Worth, the major competing airline, or the dominant airline in that market, at that time, was not American. It was actually Braniff. Now, as you’re aware, Braniff is not existent as an airline for well over 20-25 years. But at that time, Braniff saw Southwest as nipping their heel. They were taking these premium customers, these oil men, and taking them away from Braniff. So Braniff said we’ve got to do something about this. We’ve got to shut Southwest Airlines down. So that that time, Southwest fare from Dallas to Houston was $20. It cost Southwest $17 to operate that flight. $17 per passenger. So Braniff came along and said, “What we’re going to do is we’re going start offering our Dallas to Houston flights for $13.” Southwest looked at this competitive threat and said, “We’re dead. We’re absolutely going to go out of business. If we charge $13, we’ll lose $4 on every passenger. If we keep our rate at $20 or even $17, our passengers will go over to Braniff to pay the lower rate.” So Southwest wasn’t going to give up. They weren’t going to layover. They weren’t going to let Braniff take their business. So what they did is they actually raised their fare to $26, but there was one catch. These oil men would buy the $26 on their expense account, $26 ticket on their expense account, and when they got off the plane in either Dallas or Houston, they were handed a fifth of premium liquor. And some of the oil men knew that, hey, the company, my employer will pay for the ticket and 26 bucks and I’m going to walk away with a free bottle of slush and Southwest won the fare war and today Southwest has had 33 years of consecutive profitability. It’s the only airline that remained profitable after 9/11 and it’s the only major U.S. airline that has not claimed bankruptcy.

This just goes to show in other inventions at Southwest as well. Southwest, for years, has been one of the most efficient airlines. Well the reason for that is the 12-minute turnaround. So typically when planes for other airlines land, they spend about an hour on the ground which means that, you know, for more than half the day, they’re not in the air generating revenue. They’re sitting at the gate, you know, waiting. So Southwest came up with a 12-minute turnaround out of necessity. They had a route system that required four planes. Going through this battle with Braniff, they had to sell one of their planes. And so they just, their employees put their heads together and they became more efficient.

Now I’ve spent time at the Southwest headquarters in Dallas and it’s very interesting to see how that culture evolved. So what started out as the party in the sky, these young women wearing these hot pants and go-go boots. Eventually they got married. They had families. And the airline kind of grew with their people. It became more mature.

Now in some ways today, Southwest resembles a major airline, but there are some elements of their culture that are still very unique. If you go to the Southwest headquarters, for instance, you see photos of the employees that were posted on the wall. And the story of that is when these young girls started to have their families and started to mature in their lives, they would share photos with Colleen Barrett, who would eventually went on to be COO and CEO of Southwest, and others with the company. And the company posted those photos on the wall. And then just part of their fun-loving spirit, they would have wacky t-shirt day, bermuda short day. But the point is, at Southwest, everything about their culture was genuine, and it was authentic, and it was tried through the fire, and it grew from circumstance.

Now, there are people who look at Southwest. They read a business book and say, “Hey, Southwest has a great culture because they have wacky t-shirt day and bermuda short day and if we had wacky t-shirt day and bermuda short day we’d be just like Southwest.” And the memo goes out…”If you do not wear your wacky t-shirt and your bermuda shorts and send in your photos for the wall by Friday, then you’ll be put on the disciplinary list.” People can spot a phony a hundred miles away. So you can’t make up culture. Culture has to grow organically. Culture has to come through circumstances, and in the case of Southwest, culture came through the fire.

So, in Practice Velocity, we are committed to helping urgent care centers succeed. If you have any questions about culture, marketing, or any other aspect of establishing a successful urgent care operation, please do not hesitate to contact us at the website you see on your screen.

Thanks again and this is Alan Ayers, Just Checking In!

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