Thursday, July 16, 2009

United Breaks Guitars? Training Won't Fix That

I've had a great time with the recent, fun brouhaha over United Breaks Guitars. With 3 million+ views so far, the video is a testament to the new 21st century power of the individual living in the world of social media, and should give hope to all of us who ever wanted to stick it to The Man.

As "Sons of Maxwell" singer Dave Carroll notes in his follow-up statement, United Airlines has stepped up and has offered him some compensation. News reports also state that United wants to use the video in "training".

"Training"? Really?

Sorry, but I don't see a training problem here. I see employees constrained by bad practices and protocols, and others whose knowingly substandard performance would have no consequence. Basically, they were doing exactly what they were expected to do. Even Dave Carroll defended the employee who gave him the final "no" from the airline as, "Acting in the interests of the policies she represented."

No, baggage handlers do not need to attend training so they can "learn" not to throw musical instruments onto the tarmac, for cryin' out loud. People with the title "customer service representative" do not need to be "taught" not to be indifferent. Too often management throws problems into a bucket labeled "training issue" as if that will fix larger matters of culture and leadership. (And maybe hiring.)

And I want to be fair to United: Those of us who travel frequently know that this kind of thing could happen with most any airline at most any airport. (Just read the comments below the original video.) Even if it doesn't create sweeping change, perhaps the work of this one man will help spark an industry desire to improve enough to stay off of YouTube.


Dick Carlson said...

I wish I had a nickel for every time I talked a client out of giving me a big pile of nickels to design some kind of "training" that was supposed to fix their dysfunctional organization.

In fact, I probably lost out on a juicy contract for a large health insurer here in SC recently when I observed that if an internal client come to me and said they wanted training on "teamwork" I'd laugh and say that nobody in their right mind woke up one morning and decided to spend money on that.

I told the interviewers that I'd work with the client to determine what the underlying problem was we were trying to fix -- bad behavior, not filling out expense sheets, stealing pencils from each other -- that was being cloaked in the guise of "teamwork". That way we could be sure that our training met the business need and was successful.

I saw several nodding heads, but the Director was pretty shocked. She was very proud of the fact that they did training in everything from hard to soft skills, apps to organizational development. I'm guessing that most of it didn't involve much in the way of a meaningful assessment -- and my questions about that didn't get much of a response.

If you just want me to come and put on a show to make you feel better, maybe you should hire a clown. If you want to actually solve the problem, that might require more work and some actual organizational change.

That's scary.

Anonymous said...

This is my first time visiting a blog and I found the "training" issue most amusing when veiwing the music video. Is United serious when they say that they want to use the "United Breaks Guitars?" video in their "training" and what type of training are they suggesting? Attitude training?

Through work I have experienced the "Let's throw training" at it when the organization really has no clue as to how to go about fixing the "attitude" issue. From my experience the so called training has been a flop and attitudes remain the same. What to do?

Jane Bozarth said...

Hi Dick and Anon and thanks for your comments. In my experience the biggest catch-all blame-the-employee training is provided as some variation of "customer service". Alas, it is usually telling the learner how to keep conflict from escalating, to calm the angry caller, to deliver bad news, rather than actually fixing a problem. Granted, I'd rather have polite than hostile, but even more than that I'd rather have a system that works in the customer's favor.

And Dick: LOVE the teamwork example!


Joel said...

Great post, Jane! The training thing is such a copout. I quoted you in my post on United Breaks Guitars

JoshJ85 said...

Hi Dr. Jane,

Perfect. The classic organizational approach to not really caring: Have a problem? We'll throw training at it. It won't fix it, but we'll look like we're making an effort.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jane,

Great post.

But it might actually be a training problem. My guess is that United, like so many hyper-cost-conscious organizations that need to support a bloated cost structure, trained its "customer service" people to say NO, turn a deaf ear to complaints, and basically make these people go away.

They probably did much of this formally, but probably do much of it informally, as well as unconcsiously. I once heard someone from Southwest say that their employee philosophy was "treat your people like you want them to treat your customers."

Then I understood why so many other airlines treated their customers like dirt. Given the employee problems at United in the past several years, that they have a customer service problem is hardly surprising.

You might be interested in this article that a student of mine shared. It talks about the importance of bringing delight to people in their work, and the challenge of doing that in a globalized economy.

For some reason, Blogger isn't letting me sign in, so I'm leaving these posts as anonymous.

Saul Carliner
For some reason, Blogger isn't letting me sign in, so I'm leaving these posts as anonymous.

Jane Bozarth said...

Hi Saul,
I'm not sure I get your meaning, but it appears you're saying that you do see a training problem? For whom, and what kind of training/performance outcomes are you seeing?


Saul Carliner said...


What I meant--in more succinct terms--is that the United customer service agents were trained to be rude.

If the agents were trained to be rude and the workforce reinforced it, then I guess it isn't a training problem. It's a training success.

But the problem is, being rude isn't exactly a nice thing to do and, when someone called the company on it, then all of the sudden, the company was shamed into un-doing the training it had successfully completed and reinforced.

That's what I meant.


Jane Bozarth said...

Hi Saul, yes, that's what I -- and all the rest of the folks who commented -- are saying. The reps were doing exactly what they were expected (and presumably trained)to do.

Jeff J. said...

Hey Bud hope things are well with you. I LOVE the video and I LOVE your comments on the (non) training issue. Rest assured, as with the comment above, that any number of people in the United training dept, or those among the multitude of freelance trainers, will be lined up to develop and deliver training the staff don't need, which will conflict with the corporate values, and the transfer of learning not only won't be encouraged, poor performance will be what's rewarded.

But when the next video pops up, United can say: "Well, we trained everybody. What else do you want!"

Rock on!

Jane Bozarth said...

SOFTWARE QUALITIES left the following post, which just disappeared while I was moderating. My apologies if I caused it. Here it is:

In quality-related training I have given over the years (for software development and IT organizations, mainly), it is clear that few of us come to work or face the day intending to do a poor job. It is also clear that perhaps many of us come to work or face the day without expecting to do an excellent job. Doing a "good" job oftens means just getting through the day without any obviously negative consequences. But as the days, weeks, months and years pass, the negative consequences may have to get larger and larger to be as "obvious" as we need to do, at least, a better job.