The “Lesser Whole Theory” Bites United

Poor United Airlines has been receiving a lot of unfavorable press recently, mostly about unhappy premier customers. The Merger Verger has discussed the integration process with United at some length over the last few months and basically believes that they have done a good job at planning for and executing the merger.

So what’s going wrong? And are there lessons for the rest of us in this turbulence?

Much has been written about the “need for speed” in the integration process over the last few years. (Who hasn’t read the Band-Aid metaphor a zillion times?) But does that need apply to all aspects of the integration process or is it better used selectively? Clearly in the case of financial controls and employee (and management) reshuffling, speed counts.  But United’s problems seem to center around customer service issues, in particular the combined software systems and the training on those systems.  That suggests three possible explanations:


  1. A transition schedule that was overly ambitious at the outset (too many integration “priorities” or too much speed behind important but extremely complex ones);
  2. An unwillingness to push back publicly announced transition dates even when those dates loomed as unworkable; or
  3. Both of the above.

It is absurdly easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to get things done and the error rate seems to expand to the square of the complexity of the project. It leads to what I call

the “Lesser Whole Theory”

If five project team each say that their work will take three months, does that mean that a single organization can complete all five projects in the same three-month period? Don’t count on it. 

Life is filled with interdependencies, limited resources and finite amounts of management time. Five times one cannot be assumed to equal five; it frequently equals less. In a project as complex as an integrating two major airlines, the potential for delays, time underestimations, dropped balls, distractions and surprises trends to near certainty pretty quickly. Count on it.

The Merger Verger believes that United has done a good job with its stakeholder communications so this is a curious botch.  Was the company aware that all systems were not “go” when they bulled ahead with the transition to a single reservation system (a problem that they might have been wiser to admit and postpone) or was it just over-ambitious and under-prepared?

These are routine dilemmas in deal integration.  All players should sit under a tree and ponder if and how they might have handled things differently.  Forget the details for a moment; think about the process and the risk/reward.

What would you have done?  Would you dial back the schedule?  In what areas of the integration? Let us in on your thoughts.  Thanks.

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