Working Wounded Blog: Chaos 1, Order 0

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Northwest Airlines made a remarkable announcement recently -- it will no longer board its planes by rows. You know, the age-old practice of seating people in 10-row clumps starting from the back of the plane.

Why would the airline end what is clearly the most orderly and effective way to board an airplane? Precisely because it isn't.

From now on, it'll let first class, the disabled, the kids and frequent fliers board first. After that, it's first come, first served. And that's not even the wildest part of the plan. According to Northwest, letting people get on the plane randomly instead of by row will cut five to 10 minutes from the boarding process. By boarding randomly, the airline expects to board 200 people on a plane in 20 to 25 minutes. If my math is correct (and since I'm a graduate of the New Jersey public schools, you should have your doubts), that could result in up to a 30 percent reduction in boarding time.

Think about it. Forcing people to go onto a plane section by section creates logjams in different parts of the plane. On the other hand, letting people on randomly spreads the logjams all over the plane.

Why is this important for those not in the airline industry? Because it's my experience, reinforced by my e-mails for the last 10 years, that the vast majority of corporations think like Northwest Airlines used to think. They like to command and they like to control. Even when involved with a creative project, organizations want to see plans, projections and reports, and they want to hold lots and lots of meetings.

This announcement reminds us that sometimes a little chaos can get us all where we need to go faster. Significantly faster.

So why do corporations value order so highly? Oddly enough, I think it all comes from our experience in elementary school. A number of years ago I worked for a former Army general turned superintendent of schools for Seattle, John Stanford. He observed that our school system was largely set up in the early part of this century to create factory workers. And it hasn't changed from its earliest days. That's why, if you're like me, you probably remember a clear emphasis on discipline from your early years.

Factory workers. Obviously these days most of us are not on the line in factories but rather in jobs that require creativity and initiative. Yet, our brains were trained during the majority of our formative years to value order over all else.

You're probably thinking that I'm taking one little example and getting totally carried away. Ironically, I'm going to accuse you -- the corporate people reading this blog -- of doing the very same thing. Stop embracing command and control at the expense of allowing pockets of chaos to thrive throughout your organization.

3M, widely seen as the corporation that consistently generates the most revenue from new products, allows all of its employees time to work on their pet projects during working hours. Sure, they have to finish their regular assignments, but they are given a little bit of leash to do something outside the scope of their jobs.

And that reminds me of the arch enemy of Maxwell Smart in the old TV show "Get Smart " -- it was chaos. All of our lives we've been told that chaos is the enemy. Make it your friend, like Northwest Airlines did, and you just might be surprised at how much more your organization will accomplish.

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