By Chally Kacelnik
Ever heard of the $40,000 olive? In the 1980s, a flight crew from American Airlines noted that many passengers weren’t eating the olives in their salads. They passed this information on to their supervisor. After some discussion, it turned out that the airline’s salad supplier was charging more for including olives. The CEO, Robert Crandall, made the decision to leave out the humble olive, at a saving of $40,000 per year.
There are a couple of lessons in here. One’s about acknowledging good performance, and one’s about ideas implementation.
Did you notice how I named the CEO, but not the flight attendants? I’ve got no idea who they were. Crandall’s name, however, comes up again and again in business circles, usually with the misnomer that the olive removal was his idea, and usually with “clever” and “creative” attached. Of course, it was the frontline workers who noticed the issue when they were collecting tray tables, and it was the lowest tier leaders who pushed it back to Crandall.
Now, Crandall built a strong reputation for championing ideas and for encouraging people to action them before they ever hit his desk – I’m not suggesting that he stole the idea. I’m suggesting that we’re often inclined to talk about clever, creative, singular people rather than acknowledge and credit the good performance of people who aren’t in charge or in the spotlight. Credit where credit’s due is the right thing to do, encourages that good performance to stay good rather than fizzle out in resentment, and helps your organisation to genuinely track how good ideas percolate so you can benefit from more of them.
About ideas implementation: does the idea of removing a single olive seem petty to you, like something that might spiral into excessive penny-pinching that could end up causing trouble? The olive story has become emblematic of exactly that – but it needn’t. If the focus is cutting costs as much as possible, it’s the wrong focus.
With any idea, the first question you should be asking is “how will this help us better achieve our organisational goals?” If you’re trying to attract more customers and, say, providing olives to your customers drives business, then keep providing olives. If the olives aren’t getting eaten (or the equivalent for whatever your “olive” is), then save the money and apply those savings more productively. Savings themselves are not an end goal, especially if implementing the change is high effort and low return. Relentless focus on what it is you are trying to achieve will anchor financial decisions in justifiable sense.
Document and credit ideas, and have sensible gateway criteria for ideas implementation. And, if you’ll excuse the horrible pun, olive you with that.