When Jan Carlzon became president of SAS Airlines in 1981, the company was losing thirty million dollars a year and was headed toward financial collapse. Yet, in the span of one year, he transformed the company and surprised business analysts by posting a profit. When asked the secret of his success, he said the turning point had been telling his cleaning crews to wipe the coffee stains off all the flip-down trays after every flight. The business world assumed he was pulling their leg.
But Jan Carlzon was not joking. His success with SAS Airlines was founded on what he described as “moments of truth” with each of their paying customers. Since passengers could not see inside the cockpit or inspect the engines, they formed impressions of the airline’s commitment to excellence and safety from the little details they could see. If the tray tables were dirty, they assumed similar negligence over engine safety. If the tray tables were clean, they felt reassured that the pilot at the controls was given to excellence as well. Carlzon explained:
Last year each of our ten million customers came in contact with approximately five SAS employees, and this contact lasted an average of 15 seconds each time. The SAS is “created” 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 50 million “moments of truth” are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company.
The big story of Scandinavian Airlines’ turnaround is that small changes accumulate into something large and significant. The transformation under the leadership of Jan Carlzon did not come about by dramatic events but through the mundane process of taking care of small details—such as wiping the coffee stains from the flip-down trays and making the most of those 15 seconds of customer interaction.
What is true in the world of flying is true in the world of faith. God’s transforming work of grace is more of a mundane process than a series of dramatic events. Christian advancement is achieved not in big chunks at big moments but in mundane moments of everyday submission and service. According to Paul, sanctification is a daily process of moving from one stage of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). There is no leap-frogging over living the moment we are in for Christ (Luke 9:23; 1 Cor. 15:31). Life change comes about in a series of small commitments to act justly, show mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).
Paul Tripp reminds us in New Morning Mercies, “The little moments of life are profoundly important precisely because they are the little moments that we live in and that form us. This is where I think ‘Big Drama Christianity’ gets us into trouble. It can cause us to devalue the significance of the little moments of life and the ‘small-change’ grace that meets us there.”
Spurred on by the story of SAS Airlines and the words of Paul Tripp, let us make a big deal of small-change grace, for it is a big deal accumulating in large results.