The Southwest Airlines analogy

The airline industry is notoriously brutal. As Warren Buffett once wrote in a letter to shareholders, “[I]f a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.” Yet Southwest Airlines just recorded its 39th consecutive year of profitability—in a business sector where profits can be excruciatingly tough to come by.
How does Southwest do it? In part, by keeping operations simple. Simpler operations mean fewer things that can go awry and botch up the whole process.
Consider, for instance, Southwest’s fleet of jets. While other airline fleets can employ 10 or more types of aircraft, Southwest uses just one, the Boeing 737. As V.P. of ground operations Chris Wahlenmaier explained to me, this results in all manner of cost-saving efficiencies: “We only need to train our mechanics on one type of airplane. We only need extra parts inventory for that one type of airplane. If we have to swap a plane out at the last minute for maintenance, the fleet is totally interchangeable—all our on-board crews and ground crews are already familiar with it. And there are no challenges in how and where we can park our planes on the ground, since they’re all the same shape and size
.”
Seth Stevenson
, here on Slate.

You’ll have noticed that I regularly speak about the need for the world of OSS to simplify and the world of CSPs to simplify.

I use the analogy of Southwest Airlines on a regular basis to describe this concept. As Seth Stevenson states, the airline industry is excruciatingly tough to turn a profit, yet Southwest does it year after year. Simplicity and standardisation play a significant part in this because it reduces the number of variants in the operational mix.

It’s my belief that one of the reasons OSS is so complex is because the up-stream networks and services that they have to manage simply have too many variants in them. We need more ruthless attention to subtraction projects.

CSPs invariably have a patch-work quilt of legacy networks and complex bundles of services and billing. No wonder OSS projects go over time and budget.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how the hyperscale networkers take a different approach to CSPs.

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