The workflow at most fleets is fast and furious, swirling from dispatch to drivers, gathering in pools of paperwork in the back room, tumbling out to customer service and sales. It never stops. Caught up in the rush, it can be difficult to tell whether your processes are carrying the company along a profitable course or propelling you inexorably toward some financial falls just out of sight around the next Quarter.
It may be difficult to analyze business processes, but it is also absolutely critical, especially for fleets that are planning to automate functions or have recently implemented one or more technology solutions. Unless companies understand how the work really gets done every day, they run the very real risk of under-utilizing their new tools or, worse yet, unknowingly applying technology to existing processes that are seriously flawed and merely automating errors and inefficiencies.
“Fleets often purchase technology to meet one need without a good overall understanding of the business aims and processes,” says Don Burke, director of operations for Pegasus TransTech, a provider of imaging solutions for the transportation industry. “They jump on a technology solution thinking that it will solve their problems and it does not without sufficient analysis and process improvement expertise. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a one-step-at-a-time approach to automating processes, as long as you begin with an understanding of the relationship between this process and others.”
Tom Weisz, president and CEO of TMW Systems, agrees. “You have to know what your existing processes really are,” he says, “not what you think they are. Business processes tend to deteriorate over time, in part because people generally learn their jobs from the person who had the job before them and left. Bad habits just get passed on.
“For example, suppose a fleet's biggest customer puts them on notice because the carrier can't seem to send out a bill that is correct. The message is clear: Fix your billing problems or we take our business elsewhere,” Weisz illustrates.
“The carrier has been working hard to automate business processes and has six or seven relatively new systems in place to handle rating, dispatch, billing, communications, order entry and driver settlement. What the CEO discovers during a process audit, however, is that people are trained on their own particular little piece of the workflow, but nobody really knows how their own output is used or what the flow of information actually is,” he says. The result is like a series of perfectly strong chain-links all disconnected.
“There is a benefit to having everyone see the whole picture at least enough to understand how the work they are doing impacts others and affects the bottom line,” Weisz notes. The billing clerks need to know how what they are doing affects customers and driver payroll, for instance.”
The good news is that business processes tend to gradually wobble loose rather than fail catastrophically, and there are often advance warning signs. If symptoms like these are beginning to occur, they may signal the need for some workflow redesign:
Even though one or more functions have been automated, workflow hasn't picked up much speed and error rates have not improved much, either
Employees complain that the output they get from other function areas has to be redone or reworked in some way to enable them to complete their own tasks.
Employee turnover is increasing.
Managers and supervisors can describe the workflow “big picture” and how things are intended to function, but are vague when pressed for specifics.
Customers are asking for services your company can't deliver and you are hearing via the grapevine that other fleets with the basically the same technology are doing more and doing better.
How to begin
Some fleets find it easier and more effective to invite outside experts to take a look at their workflow and make recommendations for change. Outsiders have the advantage of a much larger perspective drawn from studying the best practices at many companies. They are also free from the turf battles, internal politics and time conflicts that may plague individual employees or even committees put in charge of completing a business process analysis. No matter how you chose to approach an examination of your fleet's workflow, here are some basic guidelines from various industry experts to keep in mind:
Look at how external events, like a driver's “empty” call for instance, trigger one or more internal processes and how these can be linked, automated and streamlined.
Go to the individual workers who actually do each task and have them describe and demonstrate exactly what it is they do. Details are essential.
Consider every process in terms of what it contributes to the company's goals, to the bottom line. Are workers doing the right things right? (The steward in charge of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic may have done a faultless job of it.)
As the process picture emerges, look for the biggest opportunities that will net the most return with the least investment and go after those first.
When you are ready to initiate a process improvement, make it a fully actionable project — with clearly stated objectives and a defined beginning and ending date.
IT'S WORTH THE EFFORT
“Any company can be better than they are today regardless of size,” says Glynn Spangenberg, vp of truckload business operations for Qualcomm which, like TMW, Pegasus and numerous other technology suppliers, offers process analysis support as well as a library of application links to help with improvement initiatives.
“Once a carrier understands its existing processes, then they can begin making improvements. It is not an all or nothing proposition, either,” Spangenberg says. “The one-phase-at-a-time approach works great. The important thing is to get something done, not just talk about it. It is not out of any fleet's reach to build a very sleek process end to end.”
What's in a name?
The official business process improvement lexicon
Even good process improvement models can seem like their primary purpose is to spin out a confusing cloud of acronyms intended to obscure rather than illuminate the real task at hand. Don't let the lingo stop you. Process improvement is really all about profitability improvement, no matter which system you employ or what you choose to call it.
Business Process: Basically, a process is how work is done in an organization. More technically, it is a group of related activities that turns a set of inputs into a set of goods or services (outputs) using people and/or tools. For example, a driver's trip manifest is the output from his trip recording process. That output becomes the input for still other processes, such as driver payroll and invoicing.
Business Process Re-engineering (BPR): An accelerated approach to process improvement that, at least theoretically, looks past current processes and begins instead with the question, “How should this process work?” The implementation of the BPR is a single glorious leap forward as opposed to the steady, measured effort of CPI.
Change Management (CM): May generally refer to any program aimed at driving a change through an organization in an active, managed way. Particularly, CM also refers to initiatives designed to create a workforce that is nimble, flexible and responsive-the business corollary to the ready position in tennis. The thinking behind CM is that all processes will require change over time, but since it is impossible to determine in advance exactly what the nature of those changes should be, readiness is all.
Continuous Process Improvement (CPI): Begins by analyzing the current workflow and evaluating the results or output, then looking for opportunities to make improvements, making those changes and measuring results, and so on-indefinitely. This perpetual readjustment process is intended to keep workflows always in sync with changing circumstances/opportunities and always functioning at peak efficiency.
Knowledge Management (KM): A term loosely used to describe any number of activities related to collecting all the knowledge of an organization and creating processes or systems to make it accessible to everyone within the organization. In order to manage knowledge, companies must first ask the question, “How is work done here? What is it our people need to know?” That question, of course, leads back to a consideration of business processes, to inputs and outputs.
Process Redesign (PR): The analysis and design of workflows and processes to achieve performance improvements.
Work Flow Redesign (WFD): Analyzes a particular business process, such as vehicle routing and dispatch, with the aim of eliminating redundancies, deleting unnecessary steps and streamlining flow. Used interchangeably with PR, Process Redesign.
Process audits: One fleet's experiences
Cowan Systems, a short-haul truckload carrier based in Baltimore, is proof positive that old companies in traditional industries can be as aggressive about change as any NASDAQ newcomer. Founded in 1924, the fleet has grown to 475 company tractors plus 250 owner-operators providing transportation and logistics services to shippers throughout the Mid-Atlantic States from North Carolina to New York, as well as in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The company focuses on service-sensitive customers shipping consumer goods, packaged food, beverage containers and imported commodities. Today, Cowan relies on mobile communications, document imaging and fleet management systems to help the company grow without sacrificing either customer service or fleet profitability.
Two months ago, Cowan participated in a process audit to determine if the company was fully utilizing their technology tools or if there were still potential benefits left on the table. According to company CFO Dennis Morgan, it was time well spent.
“We are big technology users,” Morgan says. “We use Qualcomm's communications system, the TransTech document imaging system from Pegasus and PowerSuite Enterprise Management software from TMW Systems. We wanted to make sure that we were really using these products to their fullest potential.
“We decided to have outside experts take a look at how we work because they could give us another perspective on our business processes. As managers within the company, we felt that we were just too close to the daily activities; we wanted the broader perspective — the view from 50,000 ft. up,” he adds. “Specifically, we wanted to know: Where are the opportunities? Which things should we do first? What actions have the biggest potential for payback?
“Process experts spent a few days with us,” Morgan recalls. “They interviewed front-line people, the employees who actually use technology everyday to do the work of the company. We wanted specifics — to know as much as we could about our actual workflow. While supervisors and managers have a good sense for the general processes, they may not know all the details. Time-consuming routine tasks like sorting, stapling, copying or matching, for instance, can be largely invisible except to the person spending his or her work hours doing them.
“Our driver payroll process is a good example,” he offers. “Right now, we are paying drivers manually. This means that someone is actually looking at driver manifests, calculating what each driver has earned and paying them, just like we did in the 1960s. The cut-off day for driver paperwork is Sunday, which means that there is a mountain of last-minute paperwork to go through on Monday morning to make payroll on Tuesday. We want to automate this process because as we've grown, the time we have to calculate payroll gets less and less. The process audit will help us prepare to make the changeover to an automated system with more confidence and better results.”
Morgan's experiences at Cowan have helped to make him a believer in ongoing process analysis and improvement paired with the appropriate employee training. “When you invest in technology, the tendency is to learn just enough to do what you need to do and then quit going forward,” he says. “Refresher training courses should be mandatory, and fleet owners and managers also need to be aware of the fact that they are missing opportunities by not taking a regular hard look at their business processes. There is always a way to make things better, always a place to improve.”