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Empowerment In Action: Self-Directed Work Teams On The Job


Joel Childs
Joel Childs, Vice President--Marketing, Roberts Express, Inc., Akron, OH 44306, 216/724-4269

81st Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1996 - Chicago, IL

Roberts Express is a company that knows about self-directed work teams--first hand. Over six years ago, we launched our first team with a handful of volunteers who tried out a different way of doing their jobs--and ended up transforming their organization. Today Roberts has replaced the old hierarchical and departmentalized organization with more than 25 Customer Assistance Teams (CATs) that run our day-to-day operations. And that's just the start; as the company grows, we'll add more teams, working up to as many as 50 CATs within the next three years. Along the way, we'll continue to learn new lessons (some of them, the hard way) about implementing the team approach and making it work. But that's what it takes to make "empowerment" a working tool, not just a buzzword. It's an ongoing effort, but we're convinced that empowered teams are the secret to customer service at Roberts and the key to our business success.

How It All Began.
Back in 1989, Roberts Express was looking for a better way of doing things--although some people might wonder why. Roberts was a very successful company with a very bright future ahead; we had already grown from $3 million in annual revenues in 1982, to over $90 million by 1989 by focusing on "critical-needs" shipments: goods that are time-critical or require special care and handling.

But we realized that, although our shipments come in all types and sizes, our customers are much the same. When they call Roberts, they're in a troublesome (if not, "worst nightmare") situation. To get out of it, they may need same-day or early-next-day delivery, but they always need personal attention, a door-to-door solution, and 100 percent reliable service. They're looking for peace of mind as much as a truck or an airplane. That makes us, first and foremost, a service company--which means we have to be perfect every time.

In the late 80's we were working hard to keep up with our volume of business, while building a larger organization. Fortunately, we had a very good system in place for measuring how we were doing on many fronts; unfortunately, it told us we weren't doing as well as we could. Some of our customers had concerns about getting lost in Roberts' bigger, more impersonal organization.

When they had a "hot" shipment, they wanted help right away, from someone they knew and trusted. At the same time, our best employees were telling us they didn't find it particularly satisfying to be "order takers." Especially if a problem came up later, they resented someone else "taking over" for them. And our contractors, the people who own and operate the vehicles that carry our business, were balking at the changes they were seeing; they didn't want to be "just a number."

At the time, many organizations were talking about teams, but when we looked around, what we found were "quality circles" or "corrective action teams." There were few benchmarks for teams in the service sector--and virtually no models for self-directed teams companywide. And, although everyone talked about "empowerment," most people seemed unclear about what it meant, let alone how to make it happen. The more homework we did, the clearer it became that our situation was unique in a number of ways and that we needed to look within our organization more closely before we could find--or devise--an approach that would truly fit our needs.

The "Old" Roberts Express. Like many transportation companies, Roberts Express had been organized around two basic functions: Customer Service (taking calls, quoting prices, handling complaints, etc.) and Operations (dispatching trucks, overseeing them en route, etc.) Typically, when Customer Service was finished doing its job, it handed off the paperwork--and the responsibility for the run--to Operations. While the two-department approach worked well in most cases, it broke down in others. And, under the strain of rapid business growth, the old "division of labor" approach was less reliable--a critical problem for a company that customers turn to for help in an emergency.

Part of the problem, we realized, was that neither Customer Service nor Operations had complete information on a run, so people didn't know how or when a problem started, let alone what it would take to fix it. Also, the two departments had virtually no direct contact (they were located in different parts of the building), so it was easier to blame each other for problems, than to work together on solving them. What's more, within each department, exceptions were typically "kicked upstairs"; by the time they worked their way up to a senior manager, the customer could be a long-lost memory.

The "New" Roberts Express. Today Roberts has an entirely new organizational structure, centered around 26 Customer Assistance Teams, each composed of seven to nine people who have been trained to take care of the customer service process, start to finish. Each CAT serves a specific geographical area, so team members get to know their territory, as well as the drivers who cover it. Even more important, they get to know their customers--frequently on a first-name basis. From past experience, they know about business hours, customers' preferences, and other key bits of information, and they have a relationship that doesn't happen in an organization where "just anyone" takes an order. The personal connection helps ensure that the CATs will do whatever it takes to get the delivery there as promised.

Roberts Express has placed the Customer Assistance Teams--the people dedicated to serving customer needs--at the core of the organization. Surrounding them are resource people who, based on their experience, can facilitate the service process and help the CATs grow in many ways. The remainder of the Roberts organization is there essentially to support customer service with administrative functions and management, or deal with specific industry needs. The central role of the CATs is evident even in the physical layout of Roberts' headquarters building. The teams work in a large, open area, designed for easy access to facilitators, conference rooms, and training facilities. Each team is grouped together in low-walled work stations that are conducive to group interaction and decision-making.

The Road To CATs.
Even before the first service team was launched, Roberts had formulated a basic objective: to remain small in the eyes of customers. We knew that, given the predicaments they're typically in, our customers need to feel as if their emergency is the only one we're thinking about. So, we took a close look at the set of skills needed to handle the entire service process as one "piece" of work. And we looked at what it would take to develop individuals and/or small teams who could do the entire job. We also took some careful measures to establish our starting point. At Roberts, we've always believed that "you can't manage what you can't measure," so we had a head start on tracking our performance in many ways. Now we focused even more intently on customer satisfaction and performance measures from a team perspective.

Roberts Express launched its pilot work team in December 1989, with seven "volunteers" drawn from Operations, Customer Service, and Safety/Recruiting. These were people who had a sincere interest in the new approach, plus a "just do it" attitude about revamping the way they did their jobs. With hard work (and a bit of trial and error), they developed a new model for customer service at Roberts Express.

The result? A resounding endorsement for self-directed teams. Based on quantitative measures, as well as personal comments, it was clear that our pioneer team was onto "something big." Within a matter of months, the pilot team had chalked up increases in both customer satisfaction and productivity. In addition, team members reported significant jumps in several job satisfaction and job enrichment indices, and there was evidence that they had strengthened their relationships with the truck owners and operators in their region.

As we basked in the success of the first team, we started to realize what an entire company based on customer service teams might achieve. At the same time, we began to appreciate the scope of what we were contemplating; we were looking at a whole new way of doing business--essentially redesigning our organization, as well as its processes and support systems. As we had already seen, there would be an enormous need for training, not only in job functions, but also team building, problem solving, time management, and communications.

Moving On To Phase II.
To think through some of the issues that would be involved in rolling out our next teams, Roberts held a series of planning sessions off-site. The core team included representatives from Operations, Customer Service, HR, and other departments, as well as senior managers and pilot team members. As we discussed our vision for a team-based organization, we got a sense of the time and work and investment it would take to make the "new" Roberts Express a reality.

We came up with a formidable list of challenges, starting with how to spread our vision beyond one group of very willing people who had the attention and support of top management. We would have to recruit more of the "right" people, then develop them with training programs and "grass roots" coaching. To get a running start, we adopted a "train the trainer" approach, and we enlisted outside help in developing a core curriculum for job functions, as well as team skills and personal development. Part of the transition, too, was a matter of physical space and the new work tools our teams would need. Using--and sharing--information as never before would mean a sizable investment in technology, plus more training.

Once we started to add teams, we found plenty of new issues to deal with and lessons to learn. It became clear, for example, that each team is an individual case, with a different set of dynamics. Also, we realized that we would have to work to secure buy-in across the organization, along with continued support from senior management. Otherwise, long-term change simply wouldn't happen. In the meantime, we would have to re-invent processes and support systems and address complex issues such as hiring, training, and incentives to support the new way of life we were creating at Roberts. Still another lesson was that virtually all the issues we were tackling were ongoing; we could never let up in terms of planning, investment, or sheer effort.

CATs On The Job Today.
Every Customer Assistance Team at Roberts today is making a wide range of decisions--on their own. Even in non-routine situations, they are able to call upon the combined experience within their group, rather than depend upon a facilitator/supervisor. When a delivery runs into trouble, CAT members take the initiative and do whatever it takes to meet the customer's deadline. Even when there is price difference that Roberts will have to absorb, the teams are now making the call. They're getting better at decision-making--and more comfortable with it. "Facilitators" are becoming what they were meant to be: resources for helping teams find their own, best way.

In addition, virtually all the teams have taken over management duties, such as scheduling work hours and vacation days; most are also managing their training programs, based on the needs and priorities they've identified. All CATs are now setting performance objectives for themselves, and they're undertaking projects to make sure these are met. Without exception, they track and display key results in their work area, so everyone knows where they stand at all times. Some of our more mature teams are now tackling issues that most companies reserve for mid-management and above; one team has taken the lead in tracking and analyzing overhead costs--an important step toward assuming profit-and-loss responsibility.

Building Empowerment.
At Roberts, we're working to ensure that self-directed teams not only work, but reach their full potential. It's a constant effort on all fronts. Hiring, for example, is a much more complex process today, especially for teams that have inaugurated peer interviews. We look long and hard for people whose abilities go beyond job descriptions, who welcome multi-tasking and can bring a broad range of abilities, communications skills, and leadership qualities to their team. It's harder to find all the qualities we value, but when we do, it's certainly worth the effort.

Because Roberts operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, work schedules will always complicate our training efforts. To work around time constraints, we've built flexibility into our training programs, with a modular approach that gives people many opportunities to work on what they want and need. Perhaps an even bigger issue is supporting training as a never-ending process. As individuals and teams continue to reach for new and stronger skills, the entire organization must respond with both the means and the opportunities to succeed. In many ways, the team approach helps us develop a "learning organization," tuned in to new possibilities--and excited by them.

One of the ongoing efforts that was developed at Roberts Express is our Star-Point Program, which encompasses six broad areas of management practice. Individuals are encouraged to learn about one or more "points" of expertise, such as Quality Management, Contractor Relations, and Team Development and become their team's "resident expert" in that area. As their personal interests and/or team's needs change, individuals can move on to other areas and continue to develop personally and professionally.

To check on how well our self-directed teams are performing, we track a number of measures daily--everything from on-time shipments, to average telephone rings. Each number is a report card--and an incentive to continually improve. We also measure individuals in terms of their job skills and personal strengths. For technical skills, we have a proficiency testing system, which we support with skill-based pay, but we also measure "soft skills," using anonymous surveys and peer reviews, and we translate the results into specific plans for personal development.

At Roberts, job performance--not years on the job--is the basis for compensation. We believe in incentivizing performance for the impact it has on customer satisfaction--and ultimately, the success of our business. We have a quarterly incentive-pay system that can add substantially to employees' take-home: as much as 22 percent of base pay for hourly employees, even more for supervisors and managers. Incentive rates are based on the Management by Objective (MBO) system we've refined over the years to sharpen our focus on customer service. And, just last year, we added gainsharing to our compensation package. Each of us can benefit, depending on how well Roberts Express scores in terms of customer satisfaction and company profitability.

For solid data on how we're doing "out there," we survey more than 200 customers monthly, and we conduct periodic focus groups. The surveys consistently put Roberts at the top of the scale in customer service--closing in on a 2.0 "perfect" score. We're also hearing a steady stream of compliments about our CATs and the "above and beyond" efforts they make every day. Internally, we conduct annual employee satisfaction surveys and, year after year, we're hearing that the team approach has made our employees' work lives much more satisfying. Those who have seen both the "old" and the "new" Roberts Express remark about the sense of pride they have in their work now and the responsibility they feel toward their teammates and their customers. Yet another measurement system shows that our 2,000 drivers value the relationship they have with "their" team, and therefore, with Roberts.

Since we instituted self-directed teams at Roberts Express, we've seen truly impressive results. We've hiked up a number of performance measures specific to our industry, while slashing administrative time and costs. We're convinced that our teams have given us the strength and flexibility we need to handle the growing, yet highly unpredictable demand in our business. With cross-trained teams, we avoid "personnel crunches," and we provide the level of service our customers expect each and every time.

Today we're more firmly committed than ever to supporting our teams--and challenging them in new ways. In fact, we've adopted a five-year plan for systematically moving people along the continuum to greater self-direction and empowerment. From our experience over the past six years now, we know that self-directed work teams are an ongoing challenge; they bring a steady stream of new issues to deal with, in new--and perhaps unsettling--ways. At the same time, we're convinced that there's nothing more exciting and more rewarding than working together in teams--and nothing more vital for our future.

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