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Departments: First Word

  

Labor, Management, Quality

In labor/management disputes, the customer suffers.

 

 

I‘m fortunate to work for a small company where everyone gets a say in what work gets done, who does it, and how it’s done, as well as where everyone feels free to speak up about the issues we face every day. Certainly nobody seems shy at any of our companywide or editorial meetings. It can be chaotic, but great ideas--and criticisms--come out of this workplace free-for-all. That doesn’t mean that everything is out in the open. As with any workplace, some worries or complaints travel the grapevine, a very short vine to which everyone is tethered. It is this type of formal and informal environment that allows us to respond quickly to reader or advertiser complaints.

We aren’t the norm, however. Did any of you notice the full-page ad in USA Today on April 10, taken out by the pilots’ union, that asked, “Why is American Airlines Failing Its Customers?”

This approach by American Airlines pilots (through the union) raises an interesting question: What is the role of the employee in safeguarding the customer’s right to a quality product? Or as Quality Digest publisher, Mike Richman, put it in a recent editorial discussion: “What is the role of employees to call broader attention to quality problems within a company? Should employees take on the responsibility to be arbiters of quality and representatives of their customers’ concerns, or should they parrot the company line and, as American Airlines spokesman John Hotard says, commit to ‘better spen[ding their energy] strengthening the company’… presumably, on the inside and in as quiet a fashion as possible?”

Simple answer: Employees are the arbiters of quality. It is the customer-facing employees who hear the complaints and catch the flak when quality fails. How they handle their ombudsmen role is another story. In a perfect world, the customer complains to an employee, the employees pass it on to management (if they aren’t in a position to deal with the issue themselves), and management takes action to fix the problem.

What happens (as is the case with American Airlines) when employees don’t feel that management is taking quality seriously? Do they go public, as the pilots did, or continue to work within the system to get issues addressed?

How you answer this largely comes down to motivation. I don’t doubt that American Airline pilots are concerned with quality. I also have no doubt that the ad was a political move to put pressure on management vis-à-vis future salary negotiations. That doesn’t mean that their quality concerns aren’t valid--certainly American Airlines has a very poor customer satisfaction record--but it does call into question the methodology. When you consider that the management that the pilots just humiliated is the same management that they must work with to implement any quality improvement efforts--pilots and attendants are the face of American Airlines, after all--you’ve got to wonder how effective this ploy will be. It may help the next time salary negotiations come around, but I seriously doubt it will affect quality improvement.

Quality improvement only happens in an environment where everyone is free to hash out problems. This takes openness and honesty on the part of both labor and management. Unfortunately, the adversarial relationship of too many union/company relationships preempts that openness. As long as unions and companies treat each other as enemies and the only goal is to see how much perks and money you can get, or not pay out, it will always be the customer who suffers.