Engaging the front line

Aaron Huff is technology editor of Commercial Carrier Journal.
E-mail ahuff@randallpub.com

Corporations are not democracies, and it’s inefficient and unnecessary for management to seek rank-and-file opinions on every decision. But when a decision affects employees’ duties and daily routines, it’s unwise to impose a solution unilaterally. By discussing options with front-line employees, you not only gain insights into possible efficiencies, you get critical “buy in” from those most directly affected by decisions. Nowhere is this more evident than in decisions related to information technology.

It’s fairly simple to determine whether a software package, for example, works on a technical level. But the most sophisticated system fails miserably if front-line employees don’t feel comfortable using it and don’t even understand what you are trying to accomplish.

In 2001, Mohawk Industries, a major manufacturer and distributor of flooring products, implemented a new transportation execution system under Stan Brooks’ management. Since then, the company’s empty miles and operating costs have decreased by 38 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Brooks, director of transportation for the Calhoun, Ga.-based company, believes that key to that success is his employee’s understanding and acceptance of the chosen system.

Mohawk Industries’ private fleet includes more than 800 trucks in drayage, line haul and P&D operations. In October 1999, Mohawk Industries hired a consultant to help benchmark the company’s current performance levels and to determine where technology could improve performance. One of the consultant’s recommendations was to use a single transportation database for all inbound purchase orders and outbound bills of lading. Another was to have real-time freight visibility – both for its private fleet and for its carrier partners, Brooks says.

“We wanted to produce an Internet site or Web page for carrier-friendly dispatch where they can go into the Web page to accept and decline loads,” Brooks says.

Brooks believes that simple is better. He chose a system that is easy to use but sophisticated enough to bridge the company’s different management technologies, including the fleet’s mobile communications system and warehouse management software.

His choice, a product from Jerome, Idaho-based TruckMaster Logistics, interfaces with the company’s mobile communication systems to provide real-time visibility and the ability to redirect seamlessly and with confidence, Brooks says. It also enables the company to put all inbound and outbound loads in one environment to maximize equipment utilization.

One of the deciding factors in Brooks’ choice of a transportation management system was the willingness to not just train employees but also to customize the system to meet employee preferences. To help employees take ownership in the decision, Brooks says he asked questions such as “What will make your job easier?” or “How would you do this?” TruckMaster programmers visited Mohawk’s facility and made minor changes, such as the way they input data, to tailor the system to employees’ liking.

Another key aspect of winning employee acceptance for a system is to clearly define your goals in using that system and communicate those goals to employees. This baseline of performance might be an operation’s critical success factors, such as deadhead miles or net operating costs.

“Once you establish your baseline, get the people to buy in on it,” Brooks says. “Change from within.”

For example, you might get employees to agree on an achievable number, such as reducing deadhead miles by 35 percent. Once everyone – management and employees – agrees on what improvements in critical success factors are reasonable, you can reduce or eliminate skepticism and resistance from the front-line troops.

“Constantly measure these factors and every month show your employees how they are increasing or decreasing,” Brooks advises. “Remind them that they agreed that was the number, and agree with them that’s where you need to go.” As you succeed in meeting your goals, share the good news with everybody, Brooks says. “People enjoy being successful.”

Technology can help you succeed, but only if your employees understand what you hope technology will do for you. Otherwise, information systems are just expensive gadgets.