Although learning from mistakes can be a painful lesson for any organization, any competent CEO or management team knows that whenever anything goes wrong, taking corrective measures against repeat performances must be their first order of business. United Airlines passenger Dr. David Dao may have suffered multiple injuries on an April 9th overbooked flight when he was forcibly ousted from his seat to accommodate UA employees, but the airline was by far the biggest loser. This single incident cost United a billion-dollar stock fall, a badly bruised company image or brand that includes everything from major Internet and mainstream media humiliation to ticket refunds, further investigation… and worst of all, the torrent of angry outcries from every corner of the world: “Shame on you, UA!”

In the Information Age, there’s no way to bury mistakes like these.

Taking a page from lean and lean learning, how can UA repair the damage—and more important, prevent future repeat performances? In his recently published book, Powering the Lean Enterprise: Fundamentals of Lean for Super-Charging Your Company & Your LifeBill Artzberger, Lean Learning Center’s managing partner with over 25 years of experience in real-world senior management, states: “The goal of lean is to identify and eliminate non-essential and non-value steps in the business process in order to streamline operations, improve quality, and gain customer loyalty.”[1]

Although company losses may be attributed to glitches on the assembly line, raw material scarcities, fulfillment delays, etc., the biggest loss for any organization, whether product- or service-oriented, is its consumers’ loyalty and trust.

In his book, Artzberger uses the example of a catering company that is experiencing challenges related to rising food prices. Elena Halles, owner of a catering business, refuses to compromise her business ethics or reputation by serving her customers any type of low-quality food that might endanger their health. When Elena consults a lean learning coach, he encourages Elena to envision her target market as clientele that will support—and demand—healthy food, expert preparation, and impeccable service.

Lean Principle Number 2, Systemic Waste Elimination, lists “Inventory” as one of the seven types of wastes.[2] To recover its customer loyalty, United may have to forfeit its gaming tactics of overbooking flights. “Defects” is another of the seven types of waste. In an excellent April 14, 2017 Detroit Free Press article by Josh Linkner, “2 lessons businesses can learn from United Airlines,” Linkner attributes United’s placement of policies and procedures above empowering employees to make smart decisions in real time, as its major defect. Linkner, best-selling author and CEO of four tech companies, states that this defect that led to a “massive snafu [that] could have been easily avoided.”[3]

If learning from mistakes is the first item on United Airlines’ reparation agenda, using Lean’s principles and rules as your guide, what are the sequential steps you would recommend the company should take?

[1] Artzberger, Bill. Powering the Lean Enterprise: Fundamentals of Lean for Super-Charging 

Your Company & Your Life, back cover textMesa AZ: Dandelion Books, 2016.

[2] Op. Cit., Artzberger, Bill. Powering The Lean Enterprise, pg. 70.

[3] Linkner, Josh. “2 lessons businesses can learn from United Airlines”. Detroit Free Press, April 14, 2017. http://www.freep.com/story/money/business/columnists/josh-linkner/2017/04/14/dfp-josh-linkner-0416/100458774/