Overcoming Conservative Culture

By Perry Glasser  |  Posted 2003-11-20 Print this article Print

From the start, Zollars had a lot to redo. First, Yellow had no centralized dispatch system. A shipment could sit on a dock for days awaiting the next truck bound for the right destination. At one moment, there might be seven or eight employees at a docking station with nothing to do; at other times, a poorly scheduled shipment might languish untended because there werent enough workers on hand when the truck arrived. And, since Yellows customers had become more sophisticated users of technology than those in the shipping industry, the definition of what constituted good customer service was changing, too, and with it, their levels of frustration. For example, customers like Wal-Mart and Lowes wanted standardized electronic bills of lading. "While that was not Yellows No. 1 priority, it was theirs," says Michael J. Smid, Executive Vice President of Yellow Transportation, the trucking arm of Yellow. But the toughest part? Zollars inherited a culture molded by the conservative Powell family, which ruled Yellow as a family business for three generations in a culture that stifled change. Headquarters was perceived as being so out-of-touch and hierarchical, that employees nicknamed it the "Palace of Miracles"—the only place where any decision could be made. "An employee out in the field might want to do something for a customer," Zollars recalls, "but a salesperson had to go up through the sales silo to a guy here at headquarters." This not only hampered initiative, it was out of step in an increasingly competitive marketplace. "By the time a decision returned down the silo, the customer was probably gone," he says.

And when it came to strategy, management was too busy looking in the rear-view mirror. "Our whole focus used to be on doing autopsies instead of doing EKGs," he says. "Wed sit around all the time and say, gee, what just happened? Wed go back and tear everything apart and then say, aha! And then wed wait for something else to happen and have another autopsy. Wed be looking back instead of wondering what might happen tomorrow."

So Zollars got busy. Not a proponent of what he calls the "warm and fuzzy" school of change management—"Im not one," he says, "to do Outward Bound, climb a mountain together, build a boat out of string and sing Kumbaya"—Zollars set up his Monday meetings and then decided to do what truckers do. He hit the road.

Within his first months at Yellow, Zollars put together an executive SWAT team of a dozen or so business and IT evangelists and together, they flew and drove across country, staging town hall-style meetings among workers, customers, drivers and suppliers in 100 of Yellows most bottlenecked or strategically critical locations, from New Jersey to California. Zollars goal: to communicate where the company was, where it needed to go and how it needed to get there—one customer, one employee, one supplier, one dock worker and one piece of technology at a time.

The pace was grueling; during those road trips, Zollars and his team logged long hours that would get even a trucker grounded. Days began at 7 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. "Wed meet separately with the sales force in the morning, and then with the drivers, then with the people on the loading docks and then the people in the office in the afternoon, and then we would follow all that up with a customer dinner at night," Zollars recalls. "I would give the same speech 15 to 20 times daily." He repeated those months-long tours two more times within his first 18 months on the job, first to help people make the changes he required, and then to warn those still having trouble that they would either have to change, or "find a different career path," Zollars says. "Change was made a condition of employment." Next Page: Putting IT on the road with employees and customers.


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