Tag Archives: systems thinking

Southwest Airlines Seating – Effective localized governance & lean systems thinking for self-managing agile teams

As I was recently reflecting on my activities in 2013, I shared a metaphor that I experienced frequently during the last year and several have commented is perhaps one of the better examples of effective localized governance in action (applicable to self-managing teams) – imagine an effective system where the organization has defined system-level boundaries allowing for participants to make decisions at the last responsible moment to maximize customer value based upon the most accurate and relevant data at the time of the decision – could the Southwest Airlines system for open seating provide some parallels to emulate within the leadership of self-managing agile & lean teams? I think so.

Residing in St. Louis, MO and traveling extensively throughout 2013, I found myself frequently choosing between Southwest and other carriers mainly due to available flights and airfare (working to optimize that travel budget), this provided an interesting opportunity to examine the different levels of service and systems employed by different airlines, for which Southwest has certainly embraced many elements of lean thinking.

Southwest’s lean and self-governing approach

Let’s examine the Southwest experience from a systems perspective (and to familiarize those that might not have experienced it personally).  Southwest offers a single class of service (open seating) – they minimally enforce the system-level boundaries in accordance with the seating capacity of their aircraft and FAA policies (all passengers must sit in a seat, you can’t sell a ticket to sit in the lavatory).  Southwest’s system assumes a minimalist approach as they only govern the number of tickets issued per flight and they cannot issue more than 143 or 175 tickets per flight (based on the type of aircraft used).  Southwest’s system does not include any additional complexity (or associated costs) to assign seats ahead of time, rather this complexity is delegated to individual passengers as they board their flight and can pick whichever seat they’d like and isn’t already taken.  Southwest’s system empowers passengers to select whatever seat they would like based upon each passenger’s unique and complicated preferences (which perhaps Southwest has realized are far too complicated to track in any database or CRM tool).  Passengers are enabled to make decisions seeking to maximize their personal utility at the last responsible moment based upon the other unique factors (the other passengers) that happen to be on your flight with you.  Since Southwest chooses to not involve itself in the complexity of the seating assignment process, customers are observed to take greater personal responsibility for their seating decisions – they can’t complain to the flight crew that they don’t like the seat they were issued and demand to be reseated, rather Southwest passengers make the best decision they can by understanding and accepting the well-defined constraints of the system.

Can increased complexity provide greater value?

Other airlines opt for a more complicated, costly and rigid system to address the same basic problem of airline seating – many have opted to layer on additional complexity to their systems in an attempt to offer more personalized services.  It is up for debate about how personalized the services are and whether or not they provide better customer value.  Beyond selling tickets in accordance with aircraft capacity and adhering to FAA regulations, complexity and costs are increased as options are added allowing customers to choose their seats ahead of time.  Before we even get to value, this increases complexity and cost – think about all the complicated software that needs to be deployed and supported to allow passengers to choose their seats (Southwest avoids the need to run and maintain this additional software) – think about all the inbound calls airlines receive in their call centers to handle seat requests and/or changes (Southwest cuts down on their call center volume, which lowers costs, by simply not having to deal with seating requests).  As for opting to increase the complexity of the system for the purpose of providing greater customer value, I hypothesize that greater value isn’t always achieved.  Let’s consider a flight where you are able to reserve your seat in advance (of course, you rarely know who will be sitting next to you), only to find out when you board the plane, that you’re sitting next to someone who perhaps you’d rather not be.  And of course as luck would have it, that intriguing and attractive person you were talking to in the gate area before boarding that you wouldn’t mind continuing to talk to for the next few hours happens to have been assigned to sit by someone else.  In this instance, the customer received minimal additional value by being able to choose their seat in advance.  Even worse, suppose you attempt to change your assigned seat (Southwest style) and self-negotiate an opportunity to sit next to your new intriguing friend from the gate area – if you’re successful, all of the costs associated with providing the ability for you to select a seat ahead of time become pure waste.

What about “Respect for People”?

Lean thinking says that by not troubling your customers, you show respect for people – designing systems that promote respect for people is a foundational principle for successful lean systems – I’ll propose Southwest has an advantage here.  Consider this example: try booking six seats for an unexpected family trip with 3 weeks of lead time – since you are traveling as a family with small children, it would be nice if you could all sit together (plus I’m sure someone traveling on business really wants to sit next to my 4 year old).  On Southwest, you are able to book your tickets on your desired flight, and then show up at the airport where Southwest provides a specific time for family boarding (between the A’s and B’s) that has been strategically placed within the boarding process seeking to respect all of the different groups of people that fly on Southwest.  Family boarding occurs after the A-group, allowing those A-group frequent travelers to claim the coveted seat that they feel they have earned, meanwhile families are guided to board the plane at a time when there are still plenty of seats together so their desire to sit together can be easily accommodated without additional hassles or fees – family boarding is a standard part of the system that was implemented at minimal cost and without complicated software or processes to support it.  On other airlines (if you try this experiment, I have), when you book multiple tickets with a short lead time, you’ll find that you may have to pay premium seat upgrade fees to be able to reserve seats together, and even if you have elite status (where the seat upgrade fees are waived), single travelers typically reserve seats with ‘empty’ seats around them, so good luck trying to find a block of seats together.  A 30-minute call to the customer support center (costly to both you and the airline) may result in the agent being able to work some magic and find seats together – regardless having to wait on hold to attempt to resolve a seemingly simple request may make some question just how much the system “respects” them as customers.

Negotiating with the system vs. with the people

Perhaps the most interesting observation from my travels of 2013 is how Southwest’s strict adherence to only governing the system level boundaries (putting up to 143 or 175 passengers on each plane) promotes more effective self-governance and respect amongst its passengers.  If you are traveling on an airline with an assigned seat, ask fellow passengers if you can swap seats with someone to sit next to a colleague or family member.  You might get lucky and get a yes, but more than likely you’ll get a “No” since many feel entitled to sit in the seat they reserved.  Furthermore by the system governing seating assignments, passengers exhibit a preference to negotiate with the system rather than with their fellow passengers who actually can provide better data to make more effective and relevant decisions.  On Southwest, since the system is not involved in seating assignments, passengers are more open to negotiate with the other actors in the environment (their fellow passengers) and are willing to accommodate and respect the needs of their fellow travelers – those seat swaps to accommodate requests to sit with family members, colleagues or those attractive and intriguing new friends from the gate area are more frequently respected and accommodated.


Before anyone goes there, this isn’t intended to be a slam on any airline, nor is it a glorification of Southwest – Southwest has definitely adopted some elements of lean systems and localized governance that are interesting to discuss for application in other contexts (self managing software development teams).  Southwest offers a unique and high quality travel product, as do other airlines, and while I do my fair share of travel on Southwest, I’ll opt for first class with Mimosas and other tasty beverages for long-haul flights on any day of the week.

Takeaway for managers/sponsors of agile teams

The takeaway from this metaphor for those sponsoring or managing agile development teams is to focus on defining the minimal number of constraints that form the boundary within which teams can self-manage.  Work to make those constraints as simple and explicit as possible (the plane has 143 or 175 seats, everyone must sit in one of them), then trust in and provide autonomy to your agile development teams and allow them to figure the rest out without your direct involvement.  If self-managing team members struggle to reach consensus or resolve internal conflicts, perhaps you can point out where a few of the open seats are on the plane, but ultimately ensure that you allow the team members to decide where they want to sit.