The actions of a flight attendant on a recent flight got me thinking about the importance of employee empowerment in delivering great customer service. This is true of flight attendants, Software Quality Assurance specialists, or any other role.

The Incident

A woman on my plane received a can of soda. She left it unopened on her tray and fell asleep.

About 45 minutes before we were going to land, the flight attendant gave a dirty look to the sleeping passenger and took the unopened can off of her tray. When the passenger woke up, she asked her fellow passengers what happened to the can and they told her.

The passenger summoned the flight attendant and asked for the can of soda. The flight attendant said that it was company policy that all passengers must drink their soda while on-board the plane. When the passenger asked why, the flight attendant stated that if they did not have this policy, the airline would go bankrupt giving out cans of soda.

This incident resulted in several upset passengers standing up for the woman whose soda was taken and ended with a loud, "Next time, I’ll fly an airline that isn’t going to go bankrupt giving out a can of soda!" The flight attendant did bring a new can of soda, but she opened it before bringing it.

Although I have a hard time believing that an airline truly has a policy that requires passengers to drink their sodas on board, I’ll give the flight attendant the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument. Assuming the flight attendant was truly following policy, it appears that she’s not empowered to give a 20-cent can of soda to a passenger even when the cost is several passengers who will go out of their way to avoid the airline in the future.

The Incident – If Catapult’s Empowerment Policy Were in Place

When I saw this incident, I was thankful that I work for a company that truly implements their philosophy of employee empowerment. Catapult Systems’ philosophy is that employees should be empowered to do what’s right for the customer. A summary of the philosophy can be found here. If the flight attendant had followed Catapult’s Empowerment policy, she would have asked herself these questions about allowing the passenger to keep her unopened can of soda:

  1. Is it right for the customer?
  2. Is it right for the airline?
  3. Is it ethical?
  4. Is it in line with the airline’s core values?
  5. Am I willing to be held personally accountable for the decision?

I think that it’s reasonable to assume that the answer to all 5 questions should be yes, which would mean that the flight attendant could allow the passenger to keep the soda without permission from any higher authority.

Employee Empowerment and Software Development

In future blog postings, I’ll share some of my past experiences where employee empowerment allowed the project team to deliver a great customer experience in software development projects.

I’d also like to hear about your experiences with employee empowerment. Have you experienced any situation where the lack of employee empowerment caused a problem on a project? Have you experienced any situation where employee empowerment led to a more successful project outcome? Have you experienced any downsides to employee empowerment?