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Commentary: Innovation Comes from the Top - and yet it Doesn't

June 2017, TruckingInfo.com - Editorial

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge

As part of an audience exercise at HDT’s inaugural Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange event last month, table groups brainstormed reasons that people don’t think, why they don’t innovate. A common theme was that people are not expected to, not challenged to — and when they do come up with an idea, they aren’t listened to. So why bother?

“You can’t transform an organization until you transform its thinking,” said keynote speaker Tim Richardson. His message was that leaders need to teach people how to think, give them some freedom to do so, and thank them when they do. If someone comes up with an idea and it’s ignored, dismissed, or laughed at, what’s going to happen the next time they have an idea — maybe one that might have been a game-changer? Doubtful they’re going to try again.

Also at HDTX, as part of the Truck Fleet Innovator panel discussion, Randy Obermeyer, terminal manager for Batesville Logistics, talked about how he not only uses Lean processes and tools to make his shop more efficient, but he also teaches his technicians how to use those tools to come up with waste-cutting ideas of their own.

At U.S. Xpress, they’re recruiting for management talent outside of the industry and putting them through a two-year program to learn the ropes (read more about the Xpress Elite program on page 88.) But not only are the future managers learning about how the various departments of the truckload carrier work, they also are bringing in best practices and ideas from other industries that can be applied in trucking. And U.S. Xpress is listening.

Yet one of the most overlooked sources for good ideas may be drivers.

At HDTX, Jeff Sass, Navistar’s senior vice president of North America truck sales and marketing, shared some stories about how the truck maker designed the new International cab based on input from drivers, including things like bringing back the air horn lanyard. In an early version, engineers put two 12-volt chargers on the dash behind the cup holders. In getting driver feedback, it took no time at all for drivers to tell them that wouldn’t work — the chargers would be blocked by Big Gulp size cups in the holders. So the chargers were moved to the center of the panel, where they could be accessed between the cups.

I’ve spoken in the past to researchers at the firm Strategic Programs about their in-depth surveys on why drivers leave companies, and while pay may be a big issue, they’ve learned that lack of respect in many ways is an even bigger problem. Your drivers are the ones out there on the road; they know what the issues are. They often have ideas for how to fix them. Hear them out and you’ll not only potentially gain some innovative ideas for your company, but you’ll also make them feel respected and much more a part of the team.

Richardson singled out one of the fleet executives he met at HDTX, Tom McKellar, vice president of transportation and terminals for Plastic Express in California’s City of Industry. The Plastic Express fleet is a rainbow of different-colored trucks, orange and green and turquoise and more — because it gives each driver a truck that is uniquely his or her own. But that’s just a symbol of the company’s attitude toward drivers.

“Our turnover is around 5%,” McKellar said. “That’s the philosophy of the company. You give the drivers a sense of duty, they are important to us, they make it happen. The dispatchers are there to support the drivers, the managers are there to support the dispatchers, I’m there to support the managers. Everyone respects the drivers, and that’s the way it used to be and that’s the way it should be again.”

Everyone’s heard the old saw about the definition of insanity being the act of continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. When you’re looking for something different to try, keep in mind that good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, from bottom to top. The key for the people at the top is to encourage innovative thinking — and to make sure to listen. 

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