Hollow words: United Airlines CEO talks up 'silver lining' of failure

Hollow words: United Airlines CEO talks up 'silver lining' of failure

Summary: More from the front lines of United Airlines' merger with Continental.

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Image credit: Tom Fishburne

Image credit: Tom Fishburne

The merger between United Airlines and Continental created the world's largest airline. However, service problems and poor execution have led to increasing complaints against United, which has long suffered from a negative reputation among customers.

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Today's Wall Street Journal features an informative article discussing the challenges and difficulties of merging operations between Continental and United. From that article:

Nearly 20 months after completing their $3.2 billion merger, United and Continental are grappling with the messy business of stitching together two sprawling operations. The process has left many longtime customers fuming, bewildered many of the company's agents and slowed revenue growth

The article quotes Jeff Smisek, United's CEO, in a failure-related comment that demonstrates surprising lack of insight:

Mr. Smisek said in April there was a "silver lining" of the troubled system conversion: United discovered "deficiencies" in how it had dealt with customer service before the switch, and that fixing them will improve service.

To realize a genuine silver lining from failure, three conditions must hold true:

  1. Awareness that a problem exists. To improve, one must first recognize that a problem exists; after all, if there is no problem, then nothing needs to change.
  2. Accepting responsibility for creating the conditions that caused the failure. Merely speaking nice words has little value. To gain benefit from failure, one must accept responsibility for the failure itself -- when in doubt, see step one.
  3. Dedicated commitment to improvement. Having recognized the problem and accepted responsibility for causing it, the next step is commitment to change. Without commitment, improvement is impossible.

Although failure always offers an opportunity to learn and improve, Smisek's comment suggests little sense of accountability or responsibility. Smisek appears to speaks of failure as an abstract occurrence for which he holds no accountability. It is also hard to believe that he was unaware of United's "deficiencies" prior to the system conversion, making the comment seem disingenuous.

Companies that genuinely learn from failure are worthy of respect and admiration; unfortunately, learning is harder than merely talking.

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9 comments
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  • Sadly, Laughably So So True

    Used to fly Continental regularly and looked on with alarm at the upcoming (at the time) United trainwreck. [i] btw: lots of flight attendents I talked to while flying shared the concern...[/i]

    I have since migrated the majority of my flying to other carriers as I have experienced first hand the dismall plummeting of service on the United front. More delayed flights, canceled flights, lost luggage, missing luggage, oversold and connection issues in the last 6 months than I had in the previous 2 years with Continental.

    This is a still rolling train wreck. :(
    rhonin
    • Your Rolling Train Wreck!

      Just so you know that dismal service you are talking about is a result of the same Passenger service system that you so lovingly refer to and run by the same Senior management.
      MMKC
    • Not so sure about that

      @MMKC
      [i]Just so you know that dismal service you are talking about is a result of the same Passenger service system that you so lovingly refer to and run by the same Senior management.[/i]

      It's hard to tell at this point where Continental ends, and United begins. Or vice versa. Not sure if they merely combined the worst characteristics of both airlines in creating this new hybrid, or if all the good features that once existed in either were negated by fusing whatever options were [i]cheaper[/i] to continue, quality determinants be damned.

      They say it's actually Continental flying the United name now, but it sure is difficult to tell. Smisek's seemingly clueless comments prove the extent of the disconnect from the executive suite side of things, and do little to damper the repackaged damage.
      klumper
    • Who's Train Wreck?

      The only thing remaining of the old United in this merger is the name, the employees, and the metal. The management and IT systems responsible for you lost luggage and missed connections came from your beloved Continental - as did the lousy coffee you sipped while on board.
      llerjer
  • What Household Cleaning Products Were Never Designed To Do

    Household products like Lemon Pledge spray shines surfaces. The product is not effective at waxing over consumers. Or employees. Or bringing a polish to rough system integration issues behind the scenes. Peter Senge must be having a great laugh. He illuminated for us all the fundamental law that the harder you push systems, they harder they will push back.
    jslevin
  • I wonder if Mr. Smisek ever flies United?

    Somehow I think all his travel is aboard exuctive jets. I'd love to see him have to travel Economy for all his business.
    matthew_maurice
    • Or at least first class

      He could take a walk around the rest of the plane while it's in flight. His customers would appreciate it, I'm sure.
      John L. Ries
  • Banks can't fly

    There is another story just like this one in the takeover of Wachovia Bank by Wells Fargo. Customer horrors abound as two very different IT platforms collide.
    Robert Hahn
  • Shades of the Wells Fargo + First Interstate merger

    [i]United and Continental are grappling with the messy business of stitching together two sprawling operations. The process has left many longtime customers fuming, bewildered many of the company???s agents and slowed revenue growth. [/i]

    All over again. And again. And again...
    klumper