It started in 1935 as an idea for building a business. To some, the idea may have seemed crazy, but when A.J. “Al” Schneider sold the family car to buy a truck, he showed his commitment to his new idea.
Today, as Schneider National celebrates its 75th anniversary, the company’s commitment to encouraging, capturing and rewarding winning ideas is stronger than ever.
Meeting the needs of customers and needs of the fleet can be a delicate balancing act, and keeping this full truckload carrier running strong through a tough economy has meant attention to details. “Our maintenance strategy is to meet the needs of the business,” explains Rob Reich, vice president of maintenance operations. “To be successful at that, I believe you must have exceptional process discipline and a focus on execution. However, it’s very important that we encourage creativity.”
Schneider’s operations are spread across a company-wide network of 30 shops located throughout the U.S. Of the more than 19,000 Schneider employees, some 650 mechanics service more than 12,000 tractors, 30,000 van trailers and about 12,000 intermodal containers.
Reich joined Schneider in 1992 following his service in Desert Storm with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. “My first assignment with Schneider was as a maintenance team leader, then I served as a shop manager. Then I was a regional maintenance leader and had several roles in our corporate Human Resources Department,” Reich explains. “My HR experience has been very helpful to me in understanding and cultivating a good pipeline of mechanics. Schneider has a history of recruiting out of the military, and I think that’s a tribute to the experience veterans bring to us.”
Reich explains that military service provides a valuable set of skills you’re not likely to find in the average college graduate. “If you look at people leaving the military today, it’s likely they’ve spent two years in combat. Compare them to their peers in the civilian workforce and you’ll see unique abilities in accountability, decision making and dealing with ambiguity.”
Today, nearly a quarter of the Schneider workforce is composed of military veterans.
“In any large maintenance network people will naturally do things differently in one location than in another. This can be a problem when a truck stops at both locations,” Reich says. “It’s very important for our people to understand that we have processes we expect them to follow, but it’s also very important that we encourage creative thinking.
“Tapping into the creativity of the workforce is critical,” says Reich, “especially when dealing with mechanics. A lot of them just love to fix things, so they’re always thinking of better ways to do things. We actually have ‘A Better Way’ process, which allows them to make a suggestion and us to measure it. And when we find a better way, we can easily educate the other 29 shops about it.”
Some recent “Better Ways” have included borrowing ideas from lean manufacturing and applying them to inventory and parts control; developing a unique tire-measuring device to ensure matched sets; and shop layout efficiencies to eliminate wasted steps and movements.
“One idea involved changing the layout of our air conditioning repair bays,” Reich explains. “We’ve eliminated a lot of the waste. Last year we did the same volume of A/C service as the year before but we did it for $500,000 less.”
Of course every shop isn’t the same so they can’t always be identical, but Reich believes the focus on efficiency and productivity through disciplined processes will continue to pay dividends. “We stress the ‘and’—we want them to be disciplined AND creative.”
Communication between shops is critical to keeping everyone on the same track, says Reich. Weekly leadership meetings and a maintenance Intranet helps, and the presence of a “Champion” for each discipline (electrical, tires, air conditioning, etc.) helps changes get communicated to all employees quickly.
“The role of Champion is very important,” explains Reich. “We obviously want to be low-cost and have great equipment availability, but we also want to be the best place for our mechanics to work. This gives them the chance to be involved in the business, to talk directly to our engineers at the company headquarters in Green Bay, Wis. I feel very good about the culture we have and the opportunities our mechanics have to get involved.”
In addition to accepting suggestions from the rank-and-file, Reich urges his industry peers to challenge themselves to look at their organization with fresh eyes. “At least once a month, walk around your operation like you’ve never been there before. You’ll see things that are out of place, procedures you’re not following, tools that are broken. Maintenance is about the details,” he suggests.
“What we’re not doing is just sitting back waiting for the next great idea. And let’s face it, I don’t expect us to have a lot of million-dollar ideas. We do need to have a lot of $50 ideas, though,” he says.
“We hope to have some million-dollar ideas but hope isn’t a business strategy,” Reich concludes. “We feel it’s more important to do the little things. If you have the right people and the right processes, people get excited about that. If they’re excited, you continue to get great ideas out of your employees. And that’s where the winning ideas come from—out of the shop. The great ones aren’t all in Green Bay.”