ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1998


Forging New Ways To Work

Celebrating Success

JCPenney Spells Out A METHOD For Success

Roberts Express Delivers CATs

Stories Of The Future

Taxes, Oscars And Performance Appraisals


Quality, Wherefore Art Thou?
by Peter Block

The Bottom Line Benefits Of Participation
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Roberts Express Delivers CATs

At times when business is booming, sales are increasing, and the company is growing, it's hard to recognize a need for change. If things are going so well, why would one need to change? The fact of the matter is that businesses can no longer continue to operate the way they have in the past and continue to be successful. During a time of growth and prosperity, Roberts Express, Akron, Ohio recognized a need for drastic change and embraced it. The results have been nothing less than astounding.

Roberts Express is an emergency shipment carrier that specializes in expedited freight and shipments that demand special care and handling. In 1989 Roberts Express launched its first customer assistance team (CAT). They now have approximately 25 CATs, involving more than 150 people who essentially run their operations themselves.

"CATs have redefined the way we conduct our business, riveted our attention as never before on customer service, and created the unique culture we have at Roberts Express today," says Virginia Addicott, director of safety and contractor relations. "CATs are the key to success that Roberts Express has in a very demanding market."

The Search for a Better Way
In seven years, their sales had increased from $3 million in 1982 to $100 million in 1989. As they were growing, they were also changing. Roberts Express took note of these changes and decided to assess how these changes were affecting them. An independent company was hired to conduct a survey with their customers and employees.

The results - customers, employees and suppliers felt they were no longer receiving the personal treatment they were accustomed to. They needed someone who could assist them immediately, rather than going through the system to explain their situation twice.

Employees were not satisfied either. They felt Roberts Express was a top-down company. They were frustrated with the chain of command they had to go through if there was a problem. Employees were not satisfied with working on just one step in the whole process.
Finally, a third group, independent truck drivers who contract their services exclusively to Roberts, expressed their dissatisfaction as well. They felt they were becoming lost as Roberts grew and they didn't want to become just a number.

Based on the input they were receiving from all sides, Roberts' leadership felt it was clearly time to look for a better way of structuring the business.

"At the time, many organizations were talking about teams, and it seemed that everyone had a total quality program," Addicott explains. "We found relatively few benchmarks for teams in the service sector and virtually no models for a company-wide system of teams who would essentially run the business. We became aware that Roberts' situation was unique and we needed to look more closely before we could find an approach that would truly fit our needs."

Roberts Express decided to examine processes to make the necessary changes. There were two main departments, customer service and operations, which acted independently of one another. Customer service handled the incoming calls, quoted prices and dealt with complaints. Operations then dispatched the trucks and oversaw them enroute. While the two-department approach worked in some instances, it broke down in others. "With the added strain of rapid business growth, it was becoming clear that the old division of labor approach was not reliable - a real problem for a company that specializes in emergency service," Addicott says.

The Road to CATs
The senior leadership at Roberts Express decided to change the organizational structure of the company. They determined that their customers and drivers were the most important people to satisfy. The goals were to remain small in the customer's eyes and to treat drivers with a personalized touch. They wanted to extend responsibility to the customer service representatives, to empower them to do whatever it took to please a customer.

Roberts Express leadership believed that by structuring the organizations into teams of 7-9 people, whose focus was to serve the customers in a particular geographical area, the company could please the customers, employees and truck drivers better. Efforts began by examining the set of skills needed to handle a shipment from start to finish - everything from the initial customer contact to the dispatch of the truck and the final delivery. Management also looked at skills such as team building and problem solving that were needed to develop teams. Roberts then developed measurements to assess the effectiveness of each team.

In December of 1989 Roberts Express launched its first pilot team. The team consisted of seven volunteers: three from operations, three customer service representatives and one safety/contractor relations representative. The first team was an overwhelming success. In just a few months, the pilot team had increased sales by eight percent and increased customer satisfaction by nine percent. The morale index rose 29 percent and overall job satisfaction increased by 10 percent. Based on these results, Roberts Express decided to fully implement work teams throughout the entire organization.

Making Work Teams Work
Roberts faced many obstacles along the way. Some employees were resistant to change. Extensive training was required for all the employees, and they needed to develop their use of technology. Roberts also needed support and commitment from management to ensure that long-term changes occurred.

"We've also had to deal with a whole new set of complex and demanding issues that go along with moving to a team-based organization. We've learned that these issues will never be resolved," says Addicott. "They'll need to be reworked as our teams grow and as our culture evolves. We cannot let up in terms of planning or sheer effort."

One of the most difficult challenges Roberts has faced is developing a compensation system. Senior management developed a skill-based system in which employees must demonstrate certain skills to receive a pay increase. Based on performance measures, incentives are given four times a year. Roberts has added gainsharing to their compensation package as well. "Each of us will benefit depending on how well Roberts Express scores on a number of quantifiable measures," Addicott explains. "Gainsharing, in effect, makes us one big team."

Hiring the right people is a key issue in making CATs work. "We look for team skills, people who were involved in school. We look for self-confident people who want accountability," Addicott says. Roberts has found that the time and effort they invest in the hiring pays off in terms of employee retention, team performance, customer satisfaction and ultimately company performance.

CATs on the Job Today
Today Roberts Express has approximately 26 customer assistance teams. Each team makes a wide range of decisions daily. Roberts Express is committed now more than ever to supporting their teams and challenging them in new ways.

"We're very proud of the progress we've made with our teams at Roberts Express," says Addicott. "We're convinced that they've been a key factor in our success in the marketplace."

Hundreds of customer surveys every month report that Roberts is right at the top of the scale in terms of service - a 1.9 on a 2.0 'perfect' scale. Perhaps the most compelling evidence is the business results they have racked up since the launch of the first customer assistance team. Roberts has increased the number of performance measures specific to the industry. They've decreased the number of phone calls needed to arrange and complete a shipment by 50 percent, increased driver retention by 50 percent and improved dispatcher efficiency by 60 percent.

"CATs have revolutionized the way we do business," Addicott claims. "They have defined new processes, developed new tools and provided new support mechanisms across the organization. We are convinced that our work teams have given us the strength and flexibility we need to handle the growing, yet highly unpredictable demands of our business. There's nothing more exciting and rewarding than the team effort we've been involved in."

April '98 News for a Change | Email Editor


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