CCJ Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges. If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact CCJ Editor Jeff Crissey at email@example.com or 800-633-5953.
High-tech companies such as Google, Tesla, Uber and Amazon have billions in cash, the brightest engineers in the world — and big data. They and a number of well-funded startups are pursuing opportunities in the transportation and logistics industry on a large scale.
Motor carriers may not be competing for freight against these titans yet — except for perhaps Uber and its brokerage business — but that will change, especially when autonomous trucks hit the road and are linked to their big data and supply chain intelligence.
Mauricio Paredes, vice president of technology for P&S Transportation, tells employees at the Birmingham, Ala.-based company that they too will be solving big logistics problems with data and technology.
Everyone at P&S has been empowered to make strategic decisions regardless of industry experience or job tenure. A load planner may have a gut feeling that a particular make or model of one of the fleet’s trucks is the one that’s best suited for flatbed loads of steel pipe.
By dragging and dropping some data fields into a report palette, he or she will be able to prove that instinct — or disprove it, as the case may be — at the speed of thought. In the future, employees also might send an update to a truck to optimize its engine and transmission for a specific type of load.
Such possibilities are within reach, Paredes says, but everyone has to do their part and use the technology the company already has to get there.
“We want the entire company to be more data-driven, see the value of data and understand how every little thing they enter into the system matters,” he says.
The path to big data
P&S Transportation was founded in 2004 by Robbie Pike, chief executive officer, and Scott Smith, executive vice president. The company first appeared in the CCJ Top 250 in 2010 at No. 222 with 405 trucks and drivers. By 2016, it had climbed to No. 104.
Today, the flatbed carrier operates more than 2,400 trucks and serves customers primarily in the oil and natural gas, building materials and steel industries.
The rapid growth of its data since 2010 has been far more substantial than equipment count. The data at P&S has expanded from 10 gigabytes to 240, but Paredes says the data’s quality is more important than the volume and has become a major focus.
The company’s fast growth impacted data quality as new technologies such as vehicle telematics and customer relationship management systems were added. Seven years ago, no one could have predicted what technologies P&S would need for the growing company to begin mapping out a strategy for how it would all fit together.
The technology department has tried to train people to enter data properly into its various systems, but “people just wanted to get things done,” Paredes says. “We weren’t able to get people to care enough to change their ways fast enough for it to matter.”
About three months ago, P&S implemented a new strategy to simultaneously improve reporting, data quality and business processes.
P&S found a reporting solution in a new business intelligence platform from the supplier of its transportation management software system, McLeod Software. The reporting tool, McLeod IQ, is a SQL Server database service packaged into multidimensional data cubes for various user roles at transportation companies.
P&S started with an operations cube for its carrier and brokerage divisions. The BI platform has various options for a user interface with interactive data visualization tools. P&S chose Microsoft’s Power BI to improve data quality and business processes by getting the tool in the hands of users at all levels in the company.
“We didn’t take a product, install it and make it available for analysts,” Paredes says. “We made it available for anyone that wanted to connect to it.” This strategy makes it possible for everyone to see how their mistakes in data entry or workflow impact the quality of the reporting and downstream business processes, he says.
When a new technology is introduced, “everybody wants to know ‘What is the benefit for me?’ ” says Paredes. When using the BI tool to create a report for their specific needs, anyone can see the impact of poor data quality.
If an incorrect code is used for a freight commodity, a person cannot analyze revenue per commodity. With the visibility the BI platform gives to this cause-and-effect relationship for poor data quality, “people are more willing to change,” he says.
P&S also created a new Business Process department that works hand-in-hand with the Technology department to assist with new technology implementation. The Technology department trains employees to use the BI tool, and the Business Process department studies how people use it, gathers feedback and makes changes to improve results.
Championing early adopters
The BI platform makes it easy for anyone to find answers quickly, Paredes says. Users drag and drop selected data fields into a blank report canvas to discover relationships. If a user wanted to analyze the costs of doing business with a particular customer, he or she could drag and drop a customer data field into the canvas and then bring in fields for cost by fleet, department and location.
When a location field is added, the user might see multiple customer codes for the location. The data would suggest that multiple customers are shipping out of the same place, when in fact it is a single customer; the bad data came from entering the same customer code in multiple ways.
During the last month, the people who have developed skill at using the BI platform are who Paredes calls “data stewards” and the early adopters. They are assigned to sit next to those who are entering data to be a self-policing force for data quality.
“Everyone has different skillsets,” Paredes says. “Some people connect to the data cube the first time and then abandon it. We are focused on giving the early adopters enough support to build momentum and change the culture of the company.”
By working together, people come up with solutions for data entry and business processes. Once those solutions have gone through some trial and error, the people involved come to the Business Process department with specific recommendations for what to change and how to do it so that the data in the system matches and improves.
“We’ve been able to have people manage data and to help identify a process that was not secure before,” says Tiffany Giekes, director of Business Process. “We want it to spread. We want more users and functional groups doing this across the business.”
The brokerage and logistics side of P&S has adopted the BI technology the earliest and are acting on information faster, Paredes says. The logistics business has been able to identify customers who are the most profitable but have the lowest volume of loads.
By conducting further analysis, the reasons why the customers are low volume — or have become that way — are made known to highlight new sales targets and opportunities more quickly.
In the asset side of the business, cubes have been implemented in sales and operations by top-level management, load planners and customer service representatives.
Today, everyone in the company has an equal opportunity to be an analyst and play a vital role in helping the company stay competitive and advance their careers. Bigger and better things are coming if employees do their part, Parades says.
“If you help us with keeping data in a neat usable format, we will implement more technology as it becomes available,” he says.