on 26 October 2007
Kevin and Jackie Freiberg began studying Southwest Airlines when Kevin was a doctoral student. This lively, funny and, at times, moving book is full of information about the origins of Southwest Airlines, what makes it unique and how it fights hard to keep its family-based culture, despite having more than 33,000 employees. Wonderful stories told by employees, letters from customers and comments from other business leaders demonstrate the principles that the authors discuss. The book is divided into four sections, with the last looking at leadership in general and as practiced at Southwest. This book was originally published in 1996, but every word of it is perfectly applicable today. Southwest Airlines is still making a profit and growing where other airlines are losing money by the planeload. We recommend this entertaining account of how to
operate a service-oriented company in a cutthroat industry.
When I read profiles of companies, I usually find that I barely recognize the company I know. Nuts! is different. It actually captures a lot of the inside perspective of Southwest Airlines, in a way that is hard to do in a business book.
I have been flying on Southwest for over 30 years, and have been fascinated by the company's business model for the entire time. So I have made it a point to fly the airline and to learn as much as possible about the people over the years. I have also had the benefit of having had a professional relationship with the firm in the past.
I was immediately impressed when the first 50 pages contained a large number of stories that long-time Southwest employees had told me over the years.
My good impression grew as important new details were added to my knowledge. Perhaps most important was the description of how the authors got access to Herb Kelleher and the company in order to be able to write the book.
If authenticity is the book's main strength, then its main weakness is repetition. The Freibergs have sliced and diced the lessons a bit too finely for my taste. Rather than portraying the key elements of the Southwest story and exemplifying these points with lots of examples, Nuts! takes the same examples and reuses them over ... and ... over ... and ... over to make different points.
A way to have improved this book would have been to have compared Southwest to other outstanding companies. The authors tended to limit their comparisons to other airlines (a group of usually not-very-well-run companies). That would have made the unique elements of Southwest clearer.
If you have ever flown Southwest, you know that the company's culture is pretty unusual. The cultural story comes across loud and clear. One of the strengths of the book is that the reasons for starting and maintaining the culture are well explained. Most cultures are pretty hard to understand from the outside. This one can be appreciated from that perspective.
Finally, I really liked the way the book explained how scenario thinking (around 'what if?' questions) has helped Southwest. This is a solid addition to the business literature.
The book is conveniently divided into several different parts that emphasize various perspectives. The beginning tells the history of how the culture was born (in adversity, as most strong cultures are). The second part describes some key principles of the company's vision and culture. The third part describes how the culture is maintained and encouraged (particularly as the company grows). The final section takes a more leadership oriented perspective. You can focus your attention on any of these points of view, and learn something valuable.
Unless you don't like people, you'll like Nuts! You'd be nuts not to. Have a great time learning more about the masters of overcoming stalled thinking in an industry where stalls are dangerous!