Always Expecting the Unexpected

 

Remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray plays an obnoxious weatherman who wakes up day-after-day doomed to replay his hated ritual of reporting on the annual appearance of the groundhog. By the end, Murray’s motivations change and he sets out to make the day perfect. So he repeats February 2 over and over until he gets everything right. In other words he gets a “do-over” every day.

At AFN, the only thing we have in common with the movie is our desire to continuously improve, or “sharpen the saw”, as we like to say. Beyond that, “no two days are ever alike for us,” says Kevin Frawley, Customer Solutions Manager. “Every day is very unique depending on the customers and/or carriers involved. Seasonal changes also impact our business. There are a multitude of issues beyond anyone’s control that can and will happen – weather, road construction, presidential convoys that tie up traffic for hours, etc. In this environment, we aim for consistency.”

To accomplish this, we are well-prepared to handle the “bumps in the road” that come with the territory in the transportation industry.

How do we deal with the unexpected?

First, Monitor
We constantly monitor and disseminate information on weather, traffic, construction zones and other news that may impact our shippers and our carriers on a company-wide basis. Weather, in particular, comes into play when we are assigning trucks. We reach out to a customer right away regarding any problem areas and verify any reports of trouble we are getting through drivers or other sources.

This vigilance helps us avert situations that are likely to cause late deliveries and/or cause an unsafe situation. Recently, in fact, Kevin’s team accelerated shipping from another state into Dallas a day and half before tornadoes were predicted to move in. While our customer’s shipment was never in danger, this scheduling change enabled the customer’s dock workers to unclog their docks at a critical time and allowed them to pick other orders. Awareness and preparation can pay off.

Second, Escalate
Once we know a situation is underway, the next step for our reps is to escalate it. We operate under the principle that two heads are better than one and, depending on the situation, having even more people focused on a single issue is far better. We have a clearly defined chain of command and our people are trained to elevate issues to their managers immediately rather than try to go it alone.

Our internal structure, in fact, reflects a “layered” concept. While each individual within each department has a clear job description, we are organized so that a procurement rep will, for instance, team with an operations rep during an urgent situation. This cross-functional problem-solving approach ensures that we take a 360 degree approach to understand all possible angles.

Along the Way, Gather Data
One of the most critical tasks of managing an evolving situation is to gather the right incoming information. This, affirms Frawley, is a core strength of his team. “We frequently use our networking skills to solve issues. Several times, for instance, we’ve needed to quickly provide warehousing or cross-docking capabilities for our customers. By knowing where our carrier and warehouse partners’ network operated, we were efficiently able to provide a consolidation and deconsolidation solution to our customer’s problem. That’s the flexibility we can tap into given our relationships with carriers in every region and across multiple lanes.” Forging long-standing relationships with carriers by treating them like customers means we know and trust each other and that means a high degree of cooperation to solve our shipper’s issues.

Finally, Resolve
We know that the best and most efficient solution may not be the first one that comes to mind. And a single solution may also not be the best solution. Frawley cites a recent example when one of AFN’s customers, using their own carrier, was unable to complete deliveries in Canada. “We were asked to step in to resolve a situation that was already well underway. Instead of making a snap decision, we stepped back and, by analyzing all the information at hand, saw that a combination of carriers was a better choice than relying on a single trucker. By using a handful of providers, the customer’s shipment was handled expediently and at a fair price.” While our core values list “sense of urgency”, we always proactively seek rational, flexible and responsible solutions, rather than seizing the first solution at hand.

Summary
When the main character in Groundhog Day, who has repeated the day hundreds of times, is asked what’s new, he replies, “Oh, same old, same old.” That will never be the case at AFN or for anyone working in transportation.  Every day is destined to be different. But having a well-reasoned process and structure in place is what helps us expect – and expertly manage – the unexpected. We know that’s the value and the service that our customers demand from us. And one of the reasons we continue to win industry awards such as the Supply & Demand Chain Executive 100. We’re determined to never let you down.