Southwest Airlines Puts Spotlight on Another Supply Chain Weak Link

By now, you’ve probably read all about Southwest Airlines’ operations meltdown during the holidays. While bad weather played a part, so did another factor that is getting a lot of attention now: technical debt. 

In a New York Times opinion piece, Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at Columbia University, describes the problem as follows:

This problem — relying on older or deficient software that needs updating — is known as incurring technical debt, meaning there is a gap between what the software needs to be and what it is. While aging code is a common cause of technical debt in older companies — such as with airlines, which started automating early — it can also be found in newer systems, because software can be written in a rapid and shoddy way, rather than in a more resilient manner that makes it more dependable and easier to fix or expand.

We’re actually exploring the topic of technical debt in supply chain operations with members of our Indago supply chain research community this week. Stay tuned for the results.

More broadly, however, the problem at Southwest Airlines puts the spotlight on a weak link many companies have in their supply chains — a problem we highlighted seven years ago in a Talking Logistics episode titled, “Is Workforce Planning The Weakest Link In Your Supply Chain Transformation Journey?

As I wrote in a post highlighting the episode, “While many companies have invested significant time and money over the years to improve their demand, supply, and manufacturing planning capabilities, they have underinvested in workforce planning and optimization, and they’re now starting to feel the consequences.”

In fact, as I wrote at the time, “at the Quintiq World Tour Philadelphia conference [in October 2015], Southwest Airlines, which has more than 18,000 employees across 90+ airports, discussed how trying to do headcount planning, schedule development, and scenario evaluation manually, while taking into account regulations and labor agreements, was becoming a losing battle for them.”

They lost that battle in spectacular fashion seven years later.

Is workforce planning a weak link in your supply chain? If you don’t know the answer, don’t wait until you suffer an operations breakdown of your own to find out.

I encourage you to watch the Talking Logistics episode — and read my post about it — for more insights and advice on workforce planning.