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  • Writer's pictureMichael A. Hughes

The Airplane Model

One Way to Truly Behave as a Servant Leader


When I was assigned my first Plant Manager role, I was pre-warned that the operators on the factory floor did not follow-through on all of their tasks every day. I was instructed to "whip things into shape". To truly understand the situation, I spent several hours on the floor with each role in the organization over the first few weeks. I learned that we had an extremely hard working team that took great pride and ownership in their tasks. The issue was that due to the recent company merger (P&G and Gillette), management had kept many of the old expectations while piling on new requirements. The operators literally had 2x the tasks than were physically possible to perform in their workday. Naturally, they were choosing what they believed to be the most important tasks and guiltily not getting to the others.

At around the same time, I watched a documentary that was all about how the next generation of the Boeing jet was being designed. The design leader imposed a strict rule on his team: for every new component or gadget you wanted to add to any part of the plane, you needed to remove something of equal or greater weight in the design. The policy made complete sense. There is a natural tendency to get excited about adding new things and if left to their own devices the plane would become heavy, inefficient and could possibly even "crash and burn".

I realized that this is exactly what was happening to our team members. Leadership was piling on new work and no one was taking the effort to take work away. Our people were crashing and burning, despite their tremendous effort.

The Airplane Model

No leader is allowed to add a single task to a team member without first removing work of equal or greater effort from that employee in advance.

Simplify to Multiply

I communicated this new rule to the entire organization simultaneously. Thereafter the leadership reward and accountability model was adjusted to measure against simplification projects and how much work they had removed. It was amazing how much redundant, non-value added work was happening throughout the organization once our leaders focused on this and encouraged full participation. Not only did this multiply the effectiveness of each employee, it also contributed to the employees seeing the genuine benefit of having leaders who cared about them. Simplifying work creates a win-win all around and is one of the most sustainable morale boosters I have experienced. It is typically not considered the "sexy work", like adding new tools or tasks but this work takes investment, courage, discipline, collaboration and vision. A great simplifier is by definition, a true servant leader and thus the type of leader that has consistently progressed most quickly in my organizations.



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