How to Train Workers to ‘Get’ the Business

It may require just a picture and a bit of interactive chat.
David McCannNovember 18, 2011

A picture may be worth not just a thousand words, but a sizable chunk of cash as well, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has found.

All of the key financial metrics the airport tracks have improved for five years running, says DFW finance chief Christopher Poinsatte. He attributes that largely to a successful alignment of employees with the components of the airport’s strategic plan. And that he attributes, in significant part, to a picture.

Over the past few years, the airport has used a “learning map” (see the image at the end of the article) custom created by Root, a company that helps organizations train employees through interactive visual experiences. A Root staff artist works with a customer to depict its desired messaging and train internal staffers to facilitate learning sessions with the employees.

DFW’s two-hour sessions, in which all of its 1,600 workers have participated, revolve around a caricatured image of an airport terminal that includes representations of the airport’s business lines, core beliefs, and strategies. Participants play a game in which they are given cards that ask questions about the business, which leads to open discussions. For example, one card lists the airport’s revenue streams and asks participants to rank them. The facilitator draws attention to how the learning map depicts the revenue streams and poses additional questions to keep dialogue flowing.

The airport has five strategic goals that are addressed in the training: grow the number of destinations and passengers served, be cost competitive, have engaged employees, have a high level of customer satisfaction, and maintain operational excellence and innovation. “We won’t get the [desired] financial results without all of those things working well,” says Poinsatte.

Pictures and interaction combine to provide a far more effective learning experience than listening to a presenter or reading, Poinsatte believes. And he thinks the airport’s financial results since its strategic-plan training began in 2007 have borne that out.

DFW’s employee engagement and customer satisfaction have improved each year since then, he says. That has driven a steady 7% annual growth in nonairline revenue, which has been plowed back into an operating budget that is $1 million per year more than it was five years ago and a 15% decline in debt service.

Like other airports, DFW’s core business is increasing its number of destinations and passengers. Therefore, it takes no profit from its top revenue sources: airline landing fees and space rentals. It charges airlines only what it needs to recoup related operating costs. It counts as a victory the fact that airline-related revenue is down 10% from six years ago, because innovation and efficiency drove a corresponding 10% decrease in the airlines’ costs. That has motivated them to add service at the airport.

With other revenue streams, more is better. The airport is now raking in more than $100 million per year in parking fees and $50 million in concession sales. Other income is generated by two Hyatt hotels and natural-gas drilling at the airport. “We believe [the improved results] are because of the alignment of employees with what we’re trying to achieve,” says Poinsatte. “They report high satisfaction with the training, which has helped them understand what’s most important to the business.”