Improving the flight path



David Harvey, PMP, senior director of network planning and performance, Southwest Airlines, Dallas, Texas, USA

Change management is all about delivering value. During his last 16 years working at Southwest Airlines, the world's largest low-cost airline, David Harvey has seen change initiatives drive major business results—including a 124 percent jump in stock price during 2014. He attributes the organization's success in part to mature project management practices. He should know: He helped implement them.

In 2008, Mr. Harvey helped establish a project management office (PMO) to oversee five major change initiatives, including the integration with another airline and the installation of a new international reservation system with global capabilities. Since then the organization has kept growing; it now operates 3,800 flights to over 90 cities every day.

Before we invested in more mature project management practices, we had struggled mightily with any project that cut across multiple departments or had a multiyear timeline, like a point-of-sale system or a revenue accounting system—the list went on and on. Most of those projects were significantly over budget and exceeded their timelines. We just weren't where we needed to be in terms of change management capabilities.

Why did Southwest respond to these problems by creating a PMO?

I think the executives got to a point of saying, “We need to bring in some expertise: How do we man-age a change request? How do we assign ownership? How do we construct a project plan and manage a schedule?” We were behind the curve on a lot of the essential elements to deliver a great product.

“We built a team focused on program planning and implementation that could partner with the broader organization to get projects across the finish line.”


What did creating the PMO entail?

In the early days, a lot of it was what I call putting plumbing in place: governance, structure, processes— even a project inventory. We had to transform all of that into a mechanism supporting executive decisions. We asked, “Are we aligned strategically with what we're trying to accomplish?” We executed everything we set out to do on an enterprise level, rather than a siloed fashion within a department.

How did employees initially respond to the new PMO?

There were a lot of early responses like, “This PMO team is a policing function. Are they really adding value?” It took both project successes and people seeing that these folks are capable of planning more broadly and focusing all the parties on common goals.

How did those successes inform the PMO's position within the organization?

It got much more involved in business planning, so that when we're making an investment in a new business or making a big change initiative, everyone is going in the same direction.

What has most enabled successful change initiatives?

Having executive sponsorship so that you can make decisions quickly. Also—and maybe even more important—having bright, capable, hardworking change leaders at the company.

How do you ensure that your project practitioners have the skills they need?

We established something we call the PM Community, an internal community with best practices, knowledge sharing and mentoring. Right now more than 500 employees are part of the PM Community. They have the opportunity to apply for a one-week training program paid for by Southwest that helps prepare people for PMI certification exams.

How has so much change affected South-west's culture?

Because employees have realized that change is a constant, an ability and willingness to change has become part of the organization's DNA. As we implement more change initiatives, we try to be very purposeful about doing appropriate training and communication. We also hire people who can embrace change.

How do you determine whether a change initiative has worked?

At the highest level, we're always looking at operating revenues, return on invested capital, on-time performance and net promoter score—an outward-facing customer metric. Those are four huge dials. We also do a massive employee survey every other year.

Describe a change initiative that improved project management processes helped deliver.

We made a major shift in 2011: Instead of managing everything at a system level—from how we manage capacity and fares across the network to how we advertise—we built a geography-based regional management infrastructure. A transformation like this can easily take a decade. We were able to make the turn in three years.

What has that meant for reaching business goals?

2014 was our strongest financial performance in the airline's 43 years. Our executive team would definitely say that executing the strategic plan we laid out five years ago has been the driving force in the carrier's current success. PM


Small Talk

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?

Find something that you're passionate about and everything else will work itself out.

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

Flexibility. Process is important, but always be adaptable enough to get the job done.

Your favorite family activity?

Every night when I get home, all my four sons want to do is wrestle or play football or basketball. It's good to end the day with that.




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