Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Chaos 1, Order 0

June 7th, 2010 | Bob Rosner

Image: Bob RosnerBefore Northwest Airlines became a memory following its merger with Delta Airlines, it offered a moment of brilliance. The company decided it would no longer board their planes by rows. You know, seating people in ten row clumps starting from the back of the plane.

Why would they end what is clearly the most orderly and effective way to board an airplane? Precisely because it wasn’t.

Instead, they decided to let first class customers, the disabled, the kids and frequent flyers board first. After that, first come, first served. Now here is the wild part. According to Northwest Airlines, letting people get on the plane randomly, instead of by row, would cut five to ten minutes from the boarding process. By boarding randomly, the airline expected to get 200 people on a plane in 20 to 25 minutes. If my math is correct (and since I’m a graduate of the New Jersey Public Schools, you should have your doubts), that could result in up to a 30% reduction in boarding time.

Think about it. Forcing people to go onto a plane section by section creates logjams in different parts of the plane. On the other hand, letting people on randomly spreads the logjams all over the plane.

Why is this important for those not in the airline industry? Because it’s my experience, reinforced by my emails for the last ten years, that the vast majority of corporations think like Northwest Airlines used to think. They like to command and they like to control. Even when involved with a creative project, organizations want to see plans, projections, reports and lots and lots of meetings.

This announcement reminds us that sometimes a little chaos can get us all where we need to go faster. Significantly faster.

So why do corporations value order so highly? Oddly enough it all comes from our experience in elementary school. A number of years ago I worked for former Army General turned Superintendent of Schools for Seattle, John Stanford. He observed that our school system was largely set up in the early part of this century to create factory workers. And it hasn’t changed from its earliest days. That’s why if you’re like me, you probably remember so much of an emphasis on discipline from your early years.

Factory workers. Obviously these days most of us are not on the line, but rather in jobs that require creativity and initiative. Yet, our brains were trained during the majority of our formative years to value order over all else.

I know what you’re thinking, that I’m taking one little example and getting totally carried away. Ironically, I’m going to accuse you—the corporate people reading this blog—of doing the very same thing. Stop embracing command and control at the expense of allowing pockets of chaos to thrive throughout your organization.

3M, widely seen as the corporation that consistently generates the most revenue from new products, allows each employee time to work on their pet projects during working hours. Sure they’ve got to finish their regular assignments, but they are given a little bit of leash to do something outside the scope of their jobs.

Which reminds me of the arch enemy of Maxwell Smart in the old TV show “Get Smart.” It was “Chaos.” All of our lives we’ve been told that chaos is the enemy. Make it your friend, like Northwest Airlines did, and you just might be surprised at how much more your organization will accomplish.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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