Italy - The Secret of Fiumicino, by Bill Smith (1967)

‘Congratulations, Fiumicino (Rome Airport) is now top of the airport punctuality league’. This telex, after only six months as BOAC Representative at Fiumicino, both surprised and perplexed me. BOAC measured airport performance monthly in terms of punctuality and passenger comment, to provide a measure of passenger service.

Rome was an important airport on BOAC’s route structure, a transit for routes south to Africa, and to the Middle and Far East. Its performance had been consistently mediocre - it fluctuated around 40th out of 80 stations. I was surprised that we had improved performance so quickly and perplexed because it had taken so little effort. It took me more than 15 years – and became the basis of my later career - to explain why.

In spite of my errors on other stations, overall performance had improved enough to send me to the second largest agency station, Rome. The increase in performance was no real surprise. I had enjoyed similar gains in Trinidad only to have them fall back again when my attention shifted elsewhere. I fully expected Rome to follow suit.

Rome had a relatively large flight frequency. In Trinidad, we had one daily flight, in Rome there were a dozen or more. It was impossible to attend to them all. In contrast to Trinidad, staff in Rome had excellent equipment. We had well qualified staff; some with masters’ degrees working as passenger handling assistants. With such resources I had to ask myself, “Why do they have such mediocre performance? With such staff and equipment in Trinidad I am sure we could have worked miracles”.

I had learned a difficult lesson in human relations in Trinidad and did not immediately want to change the systems in Rome. I got to know the station manager and talked with the duty officers on each shift. Because of the 24-hour operation, it was impossible to keep up relations with the staff on all the shifts. I needed to establish some means of communicating with all the staff before I could hope to begin to change anything. I chose a newsletter produced on a local “Gestetner".

Mindful of my Trinidad experience, I was careful not to criticise the local systems or management. I recorded the performance for each department and only commented where performance had improved. If there were declines in performance, I would use a local artist to illustrate the point. Staff were made aware of the problem but without blame.

This was the first of many steps in what I expected to be a long process of slow improvement. I was quite surprised when the next month we leapt up the performance table from fortieth to eighteenth. We took further steps up the performance league and after only six months received the telex of congratulation.

Contrary to my expectations, the performance level did not drop. Rome stayed in the top two or three positions of the league for the remainder of my two-year posting.

Once it became evident that performance was not dropping, I began to seek the cause. Something had changed in the design or management of the systems of aircraft and passenger handling. Without my direct intervention, the Italian staff had found their own way of improving the system. During my management training I had been exposed to different ideas on human relations management. I had read about the Hawthorne studies in General Electric between 1927 and 1932. These highlighted the “informal organisation” that had its roots in the aspirations of the workers themselves. The experimenters began with the theory that changes in the physical surroundings would cause changes in performance, but in a predictable direction. It was only when changes which should have had a negative effect on performance, actually had a positive effect, that researchers discovered that it was the attention given to the workers that caused improved performance and not the technical changes to lighting etc. that they were experimenting with. Had I discovered another example of the Hawthorne effect?

I visited every department and talked with staff at every level, yet in over a year I could not find evidence of a change in the systems. The change was obviously a social effect, similar to Hawthorne. But even if it were so, how could it be replicated? It had something to do with the newsletter. Yet, I knew intuitively that if I told others that the secret of success was the newsletter and it was tried elsewhere, it probably would not work. It was peculiar to the situation in Rome and my relations with the staff. My conscious approach also had a good deal to do with the lessons of experience from Trinidad. The newsletter, I believed, affected the results, but I couldn't work out exactly why. Whatever it was, it was impressive if such a shift in performance could be obtained with so little effort. What could we do if we understood what it was?

Failing to find ready-made answers, I was left to continue the search for myself. As a last attempt to make sense of the experience in Rome, I decided for my Masters thesis to review the job I held in British Airways. I wanted to find out from every BOAC station officer, area manager and line manager who held the job (there were more than 100) how they carried out their jobs and whether the differences affected performance. I knew that I had not followed a traditional approach to the job. I hoped to find other station officers who had achieved similar success but by different means. BOAC would be able to use the results to improve the design of their training programs and possibly the selection of staff to be station officers.

To my huge disappointment, when the results came in, there was no significant correlation between approach and performance of any of the groups. It seemed I had been wasting my time, and the company’s! After pondering the data for some time with the aid of a computer (fairly basic in those days!), it eventually became clear that by far the major influence was the local agency manager, who of course held the purse strings and had control of the operation. The implications for agency policy were immediately clear. It did not help much to send station officers to agency stations to improve performance. If a station were performing badly, the most effective solution would be to change the agent!

The research results, however, only made more of an enigma of the results from Rome. I had made a significant difference in performance without having control of the staff. The research had given me no answers but indicated that the Rome result was even more unusual. After leaving BOAC and working for a consulting firm in Chicago and for a pharmaceutical company, I joined the World Bank, and it was during this experience that I finally discovered the secret of Rome.

In essence, the newsletter had created a new spirit in which each of the Fiumicino staff became aware of his/her contribution to the whole - their work had more meaning. Rome had all the resources to do a good job, as well as good working relationships. What the newsletter gave them was a sense of meaning and the knowledge that they were appreciated.

The 'lessons from Rome' have been spread around the world in the work Dr. Smith has being doing since. They are now incorporated into university courses and applied to individuals as a way to encourage transformational leadership. Further information can be found on the web at www.odii.com

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