On the wings of change

IDRIS JALA has a Herculean task ahead to turn around Malaysia Airlines. And he needs all the help he can get, which is one reason why the door to his office is open all the time. 

“I practise an open door policy to make Malaysia Airlines profitable again,” said Idris, managing director and CEO of the national carrier. 

“I like this new office and it is ideal for me because I see more of the staff here than in the building in Kuala Lumpur.” 

The office is located at the three-storey administration block opposite Terminal 3 in Subang. He moved in about three weeks ago. 

“Here, I can mix freely with them and work as a team. We’re quite happy here. In the previous office, I didn't get to see the staff because the lift took me straight to the 34th floor,” said Idris, who has just completed his fourth month as managing director. 

Looking out through the huge glass-panelled window, Idris said he likens the open office to the longhouse in which he grew up as a child in Bario, Sarawak. 

FEELING AT HOME: Idris loves his new open office, and likens it to the longhouse where he grew up in Bario, Sarawak.— STARpic by ART CHEN

“In the longhouse, we hunt in the jungle, and what we have is to be shared. The open office is based on the longhouse concept. Back in the longhouse we all do a lot of gotong-royong in the farms. Here we call it teamwork. 

“During harvest, people come together to work in somebody’s farm, then they’ll go to another, and another. That’s how they do it. It's about cooperative endeavour and sharing.” 

As Idris talked about his vision and plans to turn around MAS, his inherent humane nature shone through. 

He is certainly not groping in the dark because he has got a good sense of direction to take the airline out of its doldrums.  

Moving to Subang has proven to be convenient to the staff, as the core team is based there. 

Other than those who have to be at KLIA for flight operations and ground handling, the rest of the staff based at the corporate headquarters are slowly moving to Subang. 

“There are some potential buyers for the building and from the cash standpoint of view, the sale is part of our cash survival plan,” he said. 

Shaking off old problems is not going to be easy, as Idris works on his turnaround plan to put MAS in the black. 

“There will be challenges along the way. The challenges can come through competition, and you always have to watch the competitors. The international sector is highly competitive. 

“We also have to ensure our people’s talents are unleashed. I’m convinced by what I’ve seen in the past three months that there are a lot of talented people in MAS,” he said. 

It is evident that Idris has a soft spot for the staff when he talks about them. 

“I am convinced they have the talent. They and the unions want MAS to return to its glory days. 

“There are four things we need to do to unleash their talents. Firstly, ensure that leadership is energised. Secondly, we must be accountable in what we do. 

“That’s why we’re introducing the performance management system across the company. We negotiated a deal with the union so that we tie their salary to performance. So accountability is absolutely the key.” 

Thirdly, he said, they will have to work as a team. 

“For example, we were losing money from here to London, so we got the pricing people together with the sales people, the flight operations people and the finance people, to find out how to fix the network and how to make it profitable. 

“They sat together and cast aside their silo mentality. It was really heartening to see them all sit together and work out solutions to move us ahead.” 

Fourthly, he cited Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s call for MAS to be transparent. 

“The PM came (Dec 2 last year) and talked to our staff. He said we must put transparency as a cornerstone in our efforts to unleash talents. We took his suggestion very seriously and we launched our whistle-blower policy.  

“All malpractices and fraudulent practices, if there is evidence, and people do report them, we will investigate.” 

Since the whistle-blower policy was introduced about a month ago, about 20 cases have been brought to his attention. 

“Most of these cases are being investigated. Of course, we’ll make sure the due process is fully followed.” 

Another initiative taken by Idris was to place the workers in cluster laboratories, where staff from various departments come together and lock themselves up in a room to thrash out problems confronting them. There are eight laboratories in place named after the various regions that MAS flies to. 

“They just lock themselves in the lab, and their motto is like the song, Hotel California, whereby you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave. You can go in and out, but you are stuck there for a month,” Idris said. 

“And I’m pleased that in all of that work, they were able to salvage most of the routes, and they have done well.” 

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