Anatomy of a Needs Assessment – Southwest Airlines

16 May


I have been flying Southwest Airlines for years, and participate in their Rapid Rewards program; many times over the last ten years my loyalty has been rewarded in the form of free flights. Most of the laughs I have experienced in an airplane have come by way of the congeniality and humor of flight attendants who seem genuinely to enjoy their work and the company they work for. When you peruse their web site, do take a moment to click and visit the “About Southwest” page. When you do, you’ll be greeted by a picture of their CEO, Gary C. Kelly, holding a large ribbon bearing these words: “Warrior Spirit – Servant’s Heart – Fun-Loving Attitude.” This is a company whose heart beats for success, but not at the expense of either their employees’ or customers’ experiences.

Riaz Sidi, on his Progressive Sales Strategies blog (2013), observes three things one must seek to understand about a potential client for whom he is performing a needs assessment: understand the client’s market; understand the client’s goals; understand the client’s budget. Sidi contends that when I take the time to probe deeply enough to understand these three things about the client, I am well on my way to identifying the gaps that exist and whether I am the best person to help bridge those gaps. While Sidi’s comments are made in the context of sales, they most definitely apply to the performance consultant or instructional designer.

At Southwest, I would seek buy-in from two groups of stakeholders: first, decision-makers; second, mid-managers who are closer to the front line. In some cases, this may be a single group or person; a front-line manager may have been tasked with bringing in a consultant to help address a training issue. That said, if the two are separate, it is necessary to have the funding and support of the decision-maker while at the same time gaining the valuable insights that can be gained from those closer to the front line.

Questions I would ask during the assessment would center on the gaps between the company’s desired performance and current performance. For my purposes, I would heed the advice of Dr. Roger Kaufman, Professor Emeritus at Florida State University (2013): “Needs are gaps in results (ends), not gaps in processes, activities, resources or any other solutions (means).” Since Southwest has a stated mission of “dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit (Southwest Airlines, n.d.)”, my discovery would focus on what they believe is hindering them from delivering on their mission, and how they see training in the light of those hindrances. The information I seek can be found in both employee and customer surveys, as well as documents surrounding trends in overall company performance.

Raymond Noe (2013, p. 118) lists a variety of methodologies for needs assessment, two of which stand out to me regarding Southwest. Given their commitment to customer service and the fact that I have seen it demonstrated as a passenger, I would want now to observe it again as an evaluator. The two are different in that as an evaluator I would observe with a more critical eye, noting the elements of the customer experience that both enhance and detract from that experience. I also believe that interviews at several levels internally would be critical. Noe writes that interviews have the dual benefit of uncovering deeper details of training needs than some of the other methods, but also uncovering unanticipated needs, that is, needs that even the company may not be aware of.

Though my examination of Southwest this week has been purely as a grad student, I would very much like, should the opportunity arise, to actually perform some of the needs assessment tasks I’ve described. As a training supervisor from a very successful company in a completely different industry, I would find it fascinating to see the similarities and differences in our training approaches, and to learn whether the gaps we struggle with align with those of Southwest.



About Southwest – Southwest Airlines. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Kaufman, R. (2013). Needs Assessment for Organizational Success (not your parent’s approach). Retrieved September 2013, from

Noe, R. A. (2013). Employee training & development (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Sidi, R. (2013). The 3 Takeaways of a Successful Needs Assessment. Retrieved from


Posted by on May 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “Anatomy of a Needs Assessment – Southwest Airlines

  1. Amber Krueger

    May 17, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Hi Gordon,

    I really like how you have approached conducting a needs assessment for Southwest with a focus on identifying any potential gaps that exist with organization achieving its mission and where training might fit in to bridge these gaps. I found your suggestion of using observation as a method for collecting information for the needs assessment would be quite beneficial for understanding how services are actually provided and how it supports or detracts from the organization achieving its mission and goals. In my opinion the airline industry in general needs to be customer service orientated given the wide array of options that are available. An airline must distinguish itself from others by providing high quality services to create loyal customers such as yourself in the case of Southwest.

    You mentioned gaining buy-in and obtaining insights from managers who are working closer to the front line. Stolovitch and Keeps (2004) suggest going directly to the source or the workers to gain access to credible information on performance in an organization. What role would the front line staff such as flight attendants, pilots, ticket agents, etc play in conducting your needs assessment at Southwest given that they are the face of the company? At what point, if at all would you involve them in your needs assessment?


    Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2004). Training ain’t performance. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

  2. gaylesimon2

    May 18, 2014 at 1:43 pm


    You have presented a wonderful “Needs Assessment” for Southwest Airlines.

    I like your inclusion of your own personal experience in flying with Southwest. Even more so, it is great of you to examine the specific goals, criteria, and most important factors the company has in serving all of their clients. Knowing the company’s main goal and all they do is centered around giving excellent service to its clients, gives you a great insight on how to set-up and develop the needs assessment (Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2011).

    You have adapted the three analyzes of the assessment to precisely match the sales strategies of Southwest and its people involved in servicing the needs of present and future clients. Your inclusion of all personnel in the organization (the leadership, managers, front-line staff), makes it possible for you to better identify any operational and/or performance gaps the company might be experiencing. This focus and process has led to the best form of questions to ask, the proper documents use, and most appropriate techniques to employ in gaining information and gathering data for the assessment.

    Gordon, have you ever created a needs assessment for your organization, such as the one you presented in your post? If so, how did it turn out (what were the results)?

    Thank you, Gordon.



    Fitzpatrick, J., Sanders, J., & Worthen, B. (2010). Program evaluation: Alternative approaches
    and practical guidelines (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


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