Bleary from travel, en route to Mumbai I wandered into the lounge in Frankfurt yesterday, and couldn’t find a table.  “You can share this table,” a guy offered.  Around my age, he had the casual rumpledness of someone who spends at least as much time in airports as I do.  We chatted in the usual way of fellow jet lagged travelers, desultorily passing a few minutes, looking for signs of life and connectedness as we hurl ourselves around the globe.  It’s a strange fellowship of strangers passing anonymously.  I’ve come to appreciate these glimpses into many different lives.

He works for United auditing maintenance programs.  We got talking about how the airlines industry is incredibly effective with safety.  “We have checklists for everything.  Pilots don’t take off or land without going through a checklist, same with all our processes.”

I mentioned that it seems like they’ve managed to build a culture of safety, unlike many other professions (such as healthcare and politics), in aviation the norm is to deal openly with mistakes.  I couldn’t quite summon the brain power to ask the question that’s really important here:  It’s not just checklists, its the attitude of the people using the checklists.  It’s not just procedure, there is meaning behind it.  How do you keep that alive?

All too often, organizations miss this.  They develop a code, a five step acronym, a “way” that focuses on enforcing certain behaviors.  These rarely have any meaning beyond the few people who give the speeches and make the posters promoting the idea, because they’re just checklists.  Steps to follow, not expressions of a deeper meaning.

Soon he packed up to get to his next flight.  Paused and turned back:  “Hey – thanks for flying with us.”  I smiled and said something vague, and he took a small step closer:  “Without you, I wouldn’t have a purpose.”

Could be cheesy, right?  I’m sure I’ve read that phrase in an inflight magazine, and dismissed it as platitude.  I’m just one of a million passengers, my choice of airlines has no real consequence on anyone’s job.  And, as you’ve read in other posts I’ve written about this, I believe purpose is something we each can choose to pursue without regard to a particular customer, or even a particular job.  Purpose is something we bring and create, not something we receive.

Yet in this moment, there was something more, this was not just an exchange of words. We were two guys who, in a very real sense, appreciated each other for the role we play in one another’s lives — albeit never having met, and still not knowing even one another’s names.  I felt a sense of connection and value.  It wasn’t a “big emotional experience,” yet there was heart in it; this moment of connection was much more than ticking off the last item on the checklist.

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