Saturday, November 15, 2014

The pizza story: How simple messages lead to big results

One of the highlights of my career was being part of the Continental Airlines turnaround in 1995.  There are many great lessons I still apply from that adventure.  The pizza story is one of the best.

When I joined the airline in December 1994 things were not good.  For my first three months I commuted between Houston and Chicago so I was using two flights a week. The aircraft were dirty, old and tired.  The staff didn’t care about customers.  The operation was a mess.  I even recall that the consultants working on the restructuring refused to fly Continental.  They said the planes smelt like excrement.

The new CEO was a straight talking leader.  Gordon Bethune is a great communicator.  The pizza story was how he communicated the basic requirements of an airline.  “You would not buy a pizza if it had great toppings but the cheese, sauce, and dough were not good.”  He was right.

So here are the three basic airline requirements:

The first and third basics were definitely lacking.  I remember aircraft changing gates last minute was a regular occurrence.  Whenever I travelled I made a point to ask the gate agent and flight attendant if I was on the right flight.  In these days of lower security it was not uncommon to hear a passenger say I am on the wrong flight.  Sometimes after the door was shut or worse on arrival in a different city.  Reliable even made it into one of the four points of the “Go Forward Plan”.  Make reliability a reality. 

I must have heard the pizza story at least ten times.  It was the important first step in taking the airline from “worst to first”.    The achievements of the Continental Airlines turnaround are a legendary business case.  Who knew a simple pizza could have such power.  I often wonder how Gordon orders his pizza.  

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