Managing Scrambled Eggs

7 April 2016

Years ago I flew Eastern Airlines one morning from Montreal to New York. It was the largest airline in the world at the time, run by ex-astronaut Frank Borman, but soon to disappear.

They served food in those days, well sort of—something they called scrambled eggs. I said to the flight attendant: “I’ve eaten some awfully bad things in airplanes, but this has to be the worst.” She replied: “I know. We keep telling them; they won’t listen.”

Now how can this be? If they were running a funeral home, I could appreciate not communicating with the customers. But an airline? Whenever I encounter some awful service, or a badly designed product, I wonder about the management. Is it running the business, or reading financial statements?

I guess that the financial analysts of the time were reading those statements too, and telling everybody about the problems of load factors, route structures, turnaround times, whatever. Don’t believe a word (or number) of it. Eastern Airlines went belly up because of those scrambled eggs.

Some years later, after telling this story to a group of mangers, one, from IBM, came up to tell me another story. Borman came running in at the last minute for a flight. First class was full, so they bumped a paying customer to put the boss where I guess he had become accustomed. But, apparently feeling guilty, he decided to speak to the customer. He asked a flight attendant where he could find economy class. (I made this part up, but the rest is reported as told to me.) Borman went back and found the customer. “I’m Frank Borman, president of Eastern Airlines,” he said. The customer answered: “I’m John Akers, president of IBM.”

Now the problem was not about who was bumped. Quite the contrary: status was the problem. Class counted for more than substance. Managing is not about sitting where you have become accustomed. It’s about eating scrambled eggs.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page.