Turning Around Performance in Distributed Operations with Employee Engagement
Case Study Preview: For organizations with distributed operations, spreading and standardizing best practices can be an elusive goal. The problem is not a lack of knowledge of how to drive top performance, but rather how to get ownership and commitment at the frontlines. For one of the world’s largest North American transportation services companies, this challenge was solved by executing an innovative “global to local” strategy powered by productive employee engagement.
Veolia Transportation, the largest contract transportation provider in North America, manages more than 160 million passenger trips per year in both transit and para-transit (for handicapped and elderly passengers) busing systems. It’s a tough business, with thin operating margins and profitability dependent on consistent and effective application of standard practices across widely-dispersed and autonomously run operating locations.
For former Veolia Transportation’s CEO Jim Long, the need to turn around company profitability added an increased urgency to solving the standardization riddle within an organization spanning 20 states and employing over 10,000 people.
“We had to find a way to get our frontline employees to go beyond compliance to thinking like business owners and committed to using proven practices in daily performance. In this business, there’s no way to supervise every action.”
Long knew the company had experimented with various approaches to standardization and operations improvement in the past, but these approaches yielded mixed results. Given the current profitability shortfall, the stakes were higher this time, and any new solution had to “stick.” Long said, “We had to find a way to get our frontline employees to go beyond compliance to thinking like business owners and committed to using proven practices in daily performance. In this business, there’s no way to supervise every action."
The "Global to Local" Standardization Strategy
Based on his prior experience at global environmental services company Waste Management, Long reached out to Leap Technologies to assist him in fashioning an organization-wide profit improvement campaign. The goal: Adopt proven, best practices across a system of 30 different “local” operations and cultures.
To focus the campaign, Leap designed and facilitated a Leadership Jumpstart Event – an accelerated method for aligning leadership teams – that joined together Veolia field and headquarter leaders with subject matter experts from across the organization. The goals for this two-day event: Narrow down and agree on the critical practices that best drive profitability; then, use the collective wisdom of the assembled team to craft a set of simple roadmaps for executing these practices.
This “global to local strategy”, designed to push a menu of proven practices for improving profitability to all Veolia local operations, also allowed each operation to select one practice area from the menu for rapid implementation. In this way, headquarters could be assured that local improvement efforts were aimed at the right targets. And resultingly, local managers would have the freedom to focus on their operations’ most urgent and ready-for-action improvement need.
Supporting the execution of this strategy was Leap Technologies’ Rapid Action, an "all in one" team engagement toolkit for accelerating results. Rapid Action integrates concepts from the GE Workout! method for large-scale change with simplified Lean and Six Sigma disciplines. The result is an improvement method ideally suited to distributed operations. With a just-in-time deployment model that requires no classroom training for team members, Rapid Action produces results in 60-day or faster timeframes with minimal disruption to daily work.
“Rapid Action appealed to our employees right away because it empowered them to implement best practices in a way that worked for their branch location.”
Following the Leadership Jumpstart Event, Leap trained a small team of Veolia leaders as Rapid Action coaches. These coaches went on to train local branch supervisors who then launched Rapid Action teams to localize their branch’s chosen best practices. One coach commented, "Rapid Action appealed to our employees right away because it empowered them to implement best practices in a way that worked for their branch location."
Rapid Results Aligned with Proven Practices
An initial wave of 21 Rapid Action teams launched with the mission to reduce controllable expenses while simultaneously maintaining Veolia’s reputation for stellar customer service. From Seattle to South Carolina, local Rapid Action teams worked on assignments ranging from overtime reduction to accident avoidance.
In one example, the San Jose Branch Rapid Action team took on the challenge of bus driver overtime reduction. In its first team meeting, the team brainstormed ideas for applying a proven solution provided by headquarters. The “Budgeteers” – as team members named themselves – developed methods for tracking every bus and van throughout the workday (including routes, methods of fueling, and how vehicles are cleaned) in order to better control route completion in standard timeframes. Within 60 days of launch, the San Jose Branch cut weekly overtime hours nearly in half.
Rapid Action for Standardizing Best Practices
260Teams deployed over four years
Innovative Solutions from the People Doing the Work
In Mesa, Arizona another Rapid Action team named “The Defenders of Safety” concentrated on reducing accidents. The team implemented six actions supporting prescribed best practices from headquarters, and invented a local solution for accident avoidance called “Red Dot,” an innovative incentive program designed to improve the effectiveness of pre-shift vehicle inspections.
Operating like a mystery shopper program, the program required bus drivers to find a red dot randomly placed on one of 20 safety checkpoints on their vehicle before being given the keys. Awards were given for finding the dots, and within weeks of the “Red Dot” program deployment, accidents reduced dramatically in Mesa and driver morale improved.
In the Las Vegas Branch, Rapid Action teams solved two recurring maintenance problems: Failure to take full advantage of vehicle warranty protection; and escalating costs for outside brake repairs. A simple warranty check-off field added to the computer program tracked each vehicle’s maintenance record, and ensured thorough coverage on all warranty-covered repairs. In addition, an internal brake repair shop was set up in the facility, saving over $200,000 per year in outside repair costs.
Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement
In the first year of deployment, Veolia Transportation completed approximately 75 Rapid Action projects in three waves of 20 to 25 teams, launched roughly every 90 days. At the end of each wave, team leaders, sponsors and coaches at branch locations convened for a “Listen, Learn & Leverage Meeting.” The meeting provided the opportunity to report on results achieved, share lessons learned, document new practices, and recognize and award achievement. The results, measured by the number of improvements implemented and actual budget savings, totaled more than 450 solutions and $3.5M in hard financial savings over one year.
“Without a doubt we've now tied employee participation to standardizing work practices and rewarding continuous improvement. With Rapid Action, we've given our people the chance to take ownership, to grow and to feel like owners of the business."
Over the years, simple-but-effective actions such as the “Red Dot” program have been replicated many times at Veolia Transportation, using the “global to local” strategy supported with Rapid Action teams. The results are impressive: More than $8 million in savings on operating budgets, more than 1,300 employees engaged on Rapid Action teams, and vastly improved employee and management relations.
Looking back, CEO Jim Long said, “Without a doubt we've now tied employee participation to standardizing work practices and rewarding continuous improvement. With Rapid Action, we've given our people the chance to take ownership, to grow and to feel like owners of the business."