Southwest airlines: a case study in brittleness

What happens to a complex system when it gets pushed just past its limits?

In some cases, the system in question is able to actually change its limits, so it can handle the new stressors that get thrown at it. When a system is pushed beyond its design limit, it has to change the way that it works. The system needs to adapt its own processes to work in a different way.

We use the term resilience to describe the ability of a system to adapt how it does its work, and this is what resilience engineering researchers study. These researchers have identified multiple factors that foster resilience. For example, people on the front lines of the system need autonomy to be able to change the way they work, and they also need to coordinate effectively with others in the system. A system under stress inevitably need access to additional resources, which means that there needs to be extra capacity that was held in reserve. People need to be able to anticipate trouble ahead, so that they can prepare to change how they work and deploy the extra capacity.

However, there are cases when systems fail to adapt effectively when pushed just beyond their limits. These systems face what Woods and Branlat call decompensation: they exhaust their ability to keep up with the demands placed on them, and their performance falls sharply off of a cliff. This behavior is the opposite of resilience, and researchers call it brittleness.

The ongoing problems facing Southwest Airlines provides us with a clear example of brittleness. External factors such as the large winter storm pushed the system past its limit, and it was not able to compensate effectively in the face of these stressors.

There are many reports coming out of the media now about different factors that contributed to Southwest’s brittleness. I think it’s too early to treat these as definitive. A proper investigation will likely take weeks if not months. When the investigation finally gets completed, I’m sure there will be additional factors identified that haven’t been reported on yet.

But one thing we can be sure of at this point is that Southwest Airlines fell over when pushed beyond its limits. It was brittle.

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