The New York Times recently published an in-depth look at the zany – and wildly successful – culture that propelled Southwest Airlines to become the largest U.S. domestic carrier over the past 40 years. Entitled “Pushing 40, Southwest is Still Playing the Rebel,” this entertaining and educational article explains how the company’s very powerful culture evolved and raises questions about how the company is going to sustain and grow its culture. The biggest immediate challenge is the recent purchase of AirTran Airways and bringing its 8,000 employees into Southwest’s very unique culture of 35,000 people.

In addition to a three minute New York Times video synopsis of the Pushing 40 article on the same page there’s a link to a You Tube clip of a flight attendant rapping a highly entertaining boarding announcement backed up by passengers in the front rows providing the beat through their rhythmic stomping and clapping. This is quite different than the indifferent and ignored boarding announcements I experience on most flights.

I am especially interested in this article and discussion of Southwest’s culture because we use a 20 minute video in our Leading a Customer-Centered Organization and Leading a High Performance Culture workshops and Management Team Retreats that’s always very popular and provokes lots of inspiring conversation about how to use these approaches to build the participant’s leadership and culture. Entitled “It’s So Simple” the video provides a great look at the values and beliefs deeply embedded in Southwest’s culture. In Canada, WestJet has successfully modeled itself on similar approaches.

In the Pushing 40 New York Times article Mike Van de Ven, chief operating officer, is at a company Halloween party (one of eight corporate fun functions to build teamwork) “rolling on the floor, posing for pictures, and greeting children and parents with a wide grin in his Buzz Lightyear costume. ‘This shows you how little we have to do to run the airline,’ says Mr. Van de Ven. ‘The less we do, the better it runs…our culture is our biggest competitive strength.’”

It’s a “blinding flash of the obvious” that obviously isn’t so obvious or it would be practiced much more often; delivering delightful service, involvement in the continuous improvement, and contributing to a team’s effectiveness is a voluntary effort. No amount of prodding, pushing, or punishing will produce outstanding service/quality. “Firings will continue until morale improves” may snap people into toeing the line, but it won’t nurture the creative spirit so vital to the high service/quality performance. Putting people together in groups and calling them teams doesn’t create teamwork.

Volunteerism is especially important in improving customer service. Service and quality levels are a reflection of the organization or team process, structure, or system, more than individual skills or attitudes. Individuals are the symptom carriers for dysfunctional processes and systems or the visible ambassadors of a high performance culture. Poorly served and disengaged frontline staff pass along this highly contagious attitude to customers. An organization that ignores, pushes around, or mistreats its frontline servers won’t – or even can’t – deliver exceptional customer service. A high service culture is an inside job.

It’s really just common sense. Beat up your people and they’ll beat up your customers. We now have decades of documented evidence of this phenomenon. Numerous studies have compared the levels of satisfaction employees felt in the levels of service they received from the organization with levels of customer satisfaction. When employees feel well treated, when they have the right tools available to do the job, and when they have management’s strong support for delivering high service, customers experience much higher levels of service. The internal or external service delivered by an individual or team mirrors what they receive from the organization.

It really is so simple – to understand. But it’s proven remarkably difficult for many management teams to do.