Grounded: Product Management Lessons from the Southwest Airlines Fiasco

As a product manager and trainer, the recent Southwest Airlines flight cancellations over the holidays hit close to home for my family and me. We were one of the many passengers stranded at the airport, and it got me thinking about the challenges that growing organizations face in the product management space.

One of those challenges is managing and paying down tech debt. For those unfamiliar with the term, tech debt refers to the cost of maintaining and updating systems and technology platforms as they become obsolete or unsupported. As a product leader, I strongly encourage product managers to build strong relationships with their tech leads and address tech debt in every sprint cycle. If unchecked, tech debt can slow down teams, bring operations to a halt, and require significant cleanup.
I’ve read that Southwest Airlines had a system failure directly related to not addressing their tech debt over time. They needed to keep track of their crew and pilots after many flights were canceled, but their outdated systems could not handle the increased load. This lack of investment in technical architecture and infrastructure was one of the reasons the airline had to shut down for a few days to reset its schedule.

In our training and workshops, we stress the importance of allocating a portion of resources toward paying down technical debt. We also provide critical strategies for getting leadership to buy into this investment and its associated ROI.

Another critical challenge in product management is understanding the voice of the customer. Southwest Airlines is known for being very customer-focused, with reasonable fares, friendly flight crews, and an expansive flight schedule. However, “customers” are not just those who check in their luggage and fly to their destination. Customers include frontline employees such as customer service, baggage handlers, accounting, and sales.

In the case of Southwest, their frontline employees had been seeing the deterioration of their operations system for many years, and their voice and feedback needed proper consideration. Our training and workshops emphasize the importance of understanding an organization’s different ” voices, ” not just external customers.

As a product manager, your primary responsibility is to grow the business, but you also need to make sure you allocate a portion of resources for your internal customers. Their voices are just as critical as your paying customers.

Southwest Airlines is just one example of how easy it can be to get caught up in serving primary paying customers. Still, it’s important to remember that there’s more to product management than just calculating ROI. As product leaders, we need to have a holistic view of our product and organization, including protecting our platforms’ health by investing in technical debt and listening to external and internal customers.

Register now for the webinar on Thursday, February 9, 2023, 8AM PT, 11AM ET. 

About the Author

Joe Ghali – Principal Consultant & Trainer at 280 Group

Joe Ghali is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at 280 Group. With over 15 years of experience in Product Management working for Fortune 100 & 500 organizations, he has been part of several significant product launches throughout his career. Joe’s experience as both a Product Manager and Product Owner has given a strong conviction that the most successful products are the result of strong Product and Agile teams who are transparent, collaborative, and vulnerable. And the key to those high performing teams is strong Product Management leadership at the helm.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We empower Product Professionals with the knowledge and tools to create products that matter.

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