Is there a point in business where burning your bridges behind you is a good idea? The master of war, Sun Tzu, says “yes”.
‘When he has penetrated into hostile territory but to no great distance, it is facile ground. When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no intention of crawling off to home.’ - Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu acknowledges that the solution is not to become fearless, courageous, detached and disciplined; that’s a lot to ask of soldiers, much less of your team members in business. The best solution is to give yourselves no choice but to move forward. “Facile” means to ignore the complexities of an issue or industry, maintaining a simplistic approach. As usual, Southwest Airlines leads the way when it comes to illustrating smart answers to challenges.
Established in 1967, Southwest Airlines Co. is a major US airline and the world’s largest low-cost carrier, currently operating more than 3,400 flights per day. In the late twentieth century, the airline industry braced for plummeting profits. High oil prices and widespread economic gloom put the squeeze on an industry that, prior to this, seemed to face a relatively rosy future. But Southwest Airlines demanded of itself a profit every year, even when the entire industry was losing money. The company was on facile ground; it ignored the hostile economy and territory and ploughed forward with its comprehensive approach.
From 1990 to 2003, the US airline industry as a whole turned a profit in just 6 of those 14 years. In the early 1990s the industry lost $13 billion. But Southwest remained profitable and did not lay off a single person, despite an almost chronic epidemic of airline troubles, including the high-profile bankruptcies of some major carriers. Southwest generated a profit every year for 15 consecutive years. The company had no choice but to move forward. It already had crossed that border and decided it could not look back. It took the opportunity that it had and used it.
The Southwest secret: keeping operations simple. Simpler operations mean fewer things that can go awry and botch up the whole process. While other airlines can have 10 or more types of aircraft in their fleets, Southwest used just one type of aircraft and its mechanics need only train to service that particular type of plane. They needed only to stock extra parts for that one type of plane. If there was a maintenance issue at the last moment, they needed only to swap that plane out for another exactly like it, as the fleet is completely interchangeable. The fact that the company doesn’t assign seats to passengers means if a plane is swapped out, there’s no need to adjust the entire seating arrangement and issue new boarding passes. Passengers simply board and sit where they like.
Their ‘bags fly free’ policy is good marketing. But it also has operations benefits: When people are charged for checked bags, they try to carry on more than they’re allowed to, which results in more bags being checked in at the gate just before departure, which wastes time.
Who says the simplest way of operating can’t also be the smartest?