Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Needs Assessments - Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is an airline committed to their employees and customers.  Their motto is that happy employees make for happy customers, if customers are happy they will continue to fly southwest Airlines (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).  The mission of the airline is to provide employees with a stable work environment that has opportunities for learning and personal growth (development).  Southwest Airlines’ prides itself on their employees and the attitudes that their employees have carries through to their customer service aspects (Southwest Airlines, n.d.). 
To perform a needs assessment for Southwest Airlines, one would first need to get buy-in from key stakeholders.  Southwest Airlines has always been committed to their employees and in that regard the key stakeholders would be senior management of the organization.  Senior management wants to continue to ensure that airline is committed to their employees (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).  If there are things that can be changed to create a better work environment, process or opportunity for learning, senior management wants to know and be able to help implement new ideas.  Additionally, it is vital to get buy-in directly from employees and line managers.  Senior management sometimes is removed from the day-to-day operations and as such it is important to get the views and options of employees themselves along with their managers (Stolovitch & Keeps, 2011). 
There are several questions that would and do need to be considered during the needs assessment.  There are questions that are directed at different levels, such as senior management, line managers, and employees (Noe, 2010).  Southwest Airlines prides themselves on providing learning and development opportunities for their employees.  Therefore, one question that would be addressed to all three levels of employees would be what type of learning and developmental training should be provided?  Employees may have a different idea of what learning is and how it directly relates to their own personal developmental skills than that of senior management (Stolovitch et al., 2011).  Line managers interact with employees and are able to identify strengths and weaknesses for which an employee may or want learning opportunities.  Another question to pose to employees is what type of training and learning would you like to see being offered?  Again, employees may feel that there are training opportunities that are not being offered.  One example from my current organization is writing skills.  Employees at all levels understand that writing effectively is an important aspect of their roles.  As such, they would like to be offered more extensive writing workshops and training courses that focus on the different types of writing that is required.  Senior management may not see writing as a potential learning opportunity and therefore no training is offered. 
Line managers are in a position where they interact with employees all the time and are able to identify where potential learning and developmental opportunities are needed (Noe, 2010).  On the flip side, they have an insight into what senior management wants to achieve as an organization and is the connection between senior management and employees.  Line managers have goals that need to be hit as a department.  For Southwest Airlines, it may be a quality service requirement that lost luggage is returned to customers within 48 hours or something to that extent (Southwest Airlines, n.d.).  The question that would be posed to line managers is how will training and development help to meet the goals of the department while also creating more effective work processes?  Which positions can benefit the most from training or which positions require the most training?  Line managers are able to link training with business goals (Noe, 2010).  Senior management of the airline wants to know that if training funds are being spent how is it providing return for the organization. 
Finally, senior management should have an opportunity to provide feedback and answers to questions during the needs assessment.  Southwest Airlines has already determined that training supports their business strategy.  Happy employees make for happy customers.  Employees that have the chance to learn, develop, and grow within the airline are more likely to stay with the airline while also helping to create a successful business (Stolovitch et al., 2011).  The question I would ask senior management is what treats or concerns need to be considered from their learning and development programs?  Developmental learning is being offered to employees, but are employees then presented with the chance to use what they learned?  Are employees able to move to new positions within the airline?  Are employees able to “climb the corporate ladder” to continue to further their learning and developmental opportunities, if not, are employees leaving for other opportunities at other airlines?
During the needs assessment there are a few documents that will be vital for the assessment.  First, a list of current training courses that are being offered, who the training is offered to, and who has taken the training will all help to see if the training course is beneficial for one department/team or applicable to many (Stolovitch et al., 2011).  Secondly, one may want to know what are the aims or objectives of the current training courses being offered.  The reason for this is to ensure that the content being delivered in the training course aligns with the aims and objectives that have been identified.  It is easy to envision what should be covered in a course.  However, when the training is being developed it may be hard to stay with those objectives and can be easy to get off track. 
The needs assessment can use several different techniques to gather information about the existing learning programs and what potential changes can be captured.  First, distributing a questionnaire will get individuals to start thinking about the current learning and developmental programs and what, if any, potential changes can be made or further developed.  The benefit of using a survey that is that data can be collected from a large number of individuals throughout different locations (Noe, 2010).  To supplement the questionnaire, one could consider conducting focus groups.  The focus groups can be of individuals from the same team/department, different teams/departments, varying levels of employees, etc.  The focus group allows employees the opportunity to expand on information that they may have provided in the questionnaire.  My current organization just recently conducted a focus group for junior-level analysts.  The focus group was only junior analysts as the training team needed to gather information about the current training initiatives and if senior analysts were present it may impact the conversation and feedback that was given.  Southwest Airlines may consider taking a similar approach, in that having focus groups is an opportunity for employees to speak out about what they do and do not like and make potential suggestions.  If employees are not able to speak up during the focus group information that should be received to help with the needs assessment may be missed. 
Finally, one-on-one interviews should be used for members of senior management.  Senior managers are busy and many times have a focused agenda for each meeting they attend.  Having a skilled interviewer, one is able to uncover details of training needs in a shorter time period (Noe, 2010).  The information gathered during the interview can be the starting point for the focus groups.  Senior management will be able to provide their concerns about learning and development, where they see the programs going and the focus of the programs.  In the focus groups, employees are able to weigh in on those thoughts and help to either support what was received in the interview or disagree with the information in the interview.
The needs assessment or analysis phase is important to understanding the aims and objectives or any training program (Noe, 2010).  A successful training program can only be implemented if there is a need for training.  The needs assessment identifies the areas, departments, and employees that either 1) require training or 2) want to be provided developmental learning opportunities.  Training programs may exist; however, it may be targeted at an incorrect group of employees or the content/topics covered in the training are not relevant to the population of employees attending the training.  The needs assessment helps to align who needs, wants or requires training will what is included in the training program (Noe, 2010).       
Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Southwest Airlines. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2013 from
Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2011). Telling ain't training (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.


  1. Your needs assessment successfully demonstrates an effective way to identify if there is a training update needed. All levels of employment must be contacted in order to understand where there is a lapse in training if one. Development of employees is not the same as training. The needs assessment would help see whether the development process is effective as well.

  2. I took an interest to your blog this week because we chose the same company. Southwest Airlines seems to have an excellent customer services plan and a culture that holds its employee’s in high regard. I support the use of line managers and leaders who are closest to the front line of operations. Organizations who utilize a sound practice for open communication seem to gather a better understand of what works for customers and employee’s. The thought of line managers as the connective tissue between executives and associates will help your needs assessment analysis.
    What an excellent suggestion to first pull previously used training as one needs assessment method. The review of older practices and processes with data that shows how useful these tools have been can present an idea for where the needs assessment should concentrate. Southwest has done a good job with training and development of their associates. I am confident that hour needs assessment will support their continuous growth within the industry.

  3. Christie,

    I loved your suggestion of using surveys for the needs analysis. This not only allows the trainer to get information from a wider population of employees, but it also allows the employees to take time answering the questions honestly. Sometimes in interviews or when being observed, employees will be on their best behavior and refrain from openly sharing where they think the company is falling short. Surveys can be done anonymously so that employees are less intimidated by their managers knowing how they truly feel.

    Thanks for sharing,