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Jack Levis, UPS’s director of process management | Photos by Doug Kapustin

Brown Down: UPS Drivers Vs. The UPS Algorithm

UPS’s new algorithm can plot routes more efficiently than drivers. Just try convincing the drivers of that.

“A lot of times, I feel like an explorer,” says Jack Levis, UPS’s director of process management. “Often I’m telling the company: Just because we’ve done it this way for the past 50 years doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Levis, who manages a team of mathematicians who build the algorithms that help UPS shave millions of miles off delivery routes, is paid to tell the company things it may not want to hear. One of his major projects in the last decade has been rolling out a system called ORION (On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation), a kind of algorithmic overmind that knows better than any human how drivers ought to plan their routes.

ORION was first conceived in 2000, but wasn’t tested till 2008. Over the past four years, the system has rolled out to some 50 UPS buildings; it will take another half-decade or so to roll out the system throughout UPS. “It’s one driver at a time, one building at a time,” says Levis.

Developing a system of this magnitude--and making a 105-year-old company comfortable with it--was no easy feat. Fast Company caught up with Levis to glean a few lessons.

Of Math And Men

“Advanced analytics should be one of the top priorities for CIOs,” says Levis, who can talk of math in near-koans: “Beyond knowledge is wisdom, and beyond that is clairvoyance.” Math simply can solve problems that humans can’t. For instance, by running advanced analytics on reams of collected data from trucks, Levis’s team is now able to predict when a given part is about to fail: “preventative maintenance,” he calls it.

ORION is about 80 pages' worth of math formulas--“like something Einstein would have on his board,” says Levis. So far, it has saved UPS something like 35 million miles a year, and Levis projects that it will save millions more.

Consider an average driver’s route. There are more ways to deliver such a route than there are nanoseconds that the Earth has existed. Take one particular problem: You’re a UPS driver, and you’re delivering a package. There’s also a package due next door--but not till later this afternoon. Do you deliver it quickly now? Intuition says yes. But then do you also deliver the package two doors down? How about the one across the street? And if you follow the rule of thumb of hitting all nearby houses in this neighborhood, should you necessarily follow that same rule of thumb in the next neighborhood? And the next?

“The combinations are astronomical,” says Levis. “What we do as people is oversimplify.” We decide only to early-deliver the priority packages. Or we drop off all the packages on this block but skip the others. “Rules of thumb don’t truly optimize,” says Levis. Math does.

But Trust Boots On The Ground, Too

Still, no one who’s been driving a route for a decade or more wants to suddenly be bossed around by some computer. Levis knew ORION was good for UPS. But UPS’s drivers needed some convincing.

When ORION first began to roll out, Levis admits he presented the system in a less-than-ideal way. “We’d go in in the morning and say, here’s your planned number of miles.” A driver who usually had a 155-mile route was suddenly being told a computer was saying he could do it in 140. It probably felt something like a put-down.

“So we changed it,” says Levis. His team put up a sheet that said, “Beat the computer.” It was a matter of framing: ORION was going to make a prediction about how fast you could do your route, and now your job was to do it one better (all while taking into account ORION’s suggestions).

Levis recalls one driver who normally did his route in 150 miles. ORION predicted he could do it in 140. One day, the driver came back from his route and said, “I told you, your system’s no good.” ORION’s prediction was wrong, he said--he had managed to do the route in 135, not 140. “To this day, he doesn’t really recognize that ORION is what caused this,” says Levis. “He just views it as another input to use together with his intuition.”

Tap Academia

The problem of route optimization that UPS works on is actually a well-studied math problem, the Traveling Salesman Problem. It makes sense, then, for UPS to partner with academia. Levis was elected to the board of directors of an organization called INFORMS (the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science). He’s the only board member without a PhD.

“It’s a funny marriage, because I’m always the dumbest person in the room,” he says. “But then again, I’m the person in the room who has actually implemented this advanced mathematics. It’s a wonderful way for UPS to get what the latest research is, but UPS gives back to INFORMS as much as we get.”

Common Sense Trumps

At Levis’s office, they’re continually asking if they’re smarter than a fifth grader. The reason is that a project manager on ORION recently visited his daughter’s school on career day. He explained all about traveling salesman problems, time windows, all the intricate math that UPS works on. He gave an example of someone who has to go to the barbershop, the grocery store, and a number of other places, but in an uncertain order; ORION’s solution had him going to the grocery store first.

A student raised his hand and said ORION didn’t work. “My mother would never do this,” he said. After all, you can’t have ice cream sitting in the trunk all afternoon, while you’re off getting a haircut.

“That’s the challenge we’re up against,” says Levis. “Moving from mathematics that happens to work mathematically, to mathematics that works that people actually do.”

For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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33 Comments

  • Lon B Powley

    After working for UPS for over 20 years, driving for 16, and on the same route for 13 years I was kinda hacked off that a person sat in an office and used Google maps to plan my roure for the use of EDD. After I got used to it I realized that I had never seen my route as driver friendly as it is now. I for one am looking forward to the start of ORION in my center around June of this year. What could possibily go wrong? Less miles, less stops, and a bit longer of a day. To combat the (problem?) overtime we are putting on 30 drivers in the coming weeks.

    Methods that UPS has drilled into my head. Absolutely 100% everyday. Why? They work. Especially if there is a 9.5 problem. Want to ride with me, sure why not. Just don't talk to me while im driving (in cab distraction). Sorry for the long day boss.

  • This is such a great article! I just appreciate Mr. Levi's honesty about the limitations of BOTH human and machine....for the time being. It is interesting to note that machine interaction might expedite human processing capability and capacity just as it did in the case of the driver who beat the 140 mile route suggested by Orion. It's okay, Mr. Levi, the coupling of machine mathematics with human intuition! It keeps us relevant as humans! Thanks for the clever presentation of this juxtaposition, Mr. Zax.

  • just another driver

    I have tried and tried. ORION is a great idea, but unless you can stick to the plan and meet all the time estimates AND find your packages. It won't work. If you have to deviate for one of the many variables like a business stop by 3pm, then the whole thing is a moot point. I am running longer hours and more miles with ORION. It just doesn't work. The only exception is country routes. I love it then. If I'm out in the country and not very familiar with it, following Orion order helps me immensely because it is taking into account where block numbers are on streets that may be several miles long. But other than that, if we follow ORION trace, many business packages will be missed. We are being told to follow it now, so I am trying, but am still stressed when I know it's not working and feel that I have ton break off to "make service" on a package, then come back to trace. Then one break off causes a delay, that required another break in trace, and I can never reach the 85% trace requirement. We drivers want the company to be more efficient and profitable, but please make it possible!

  • It's great until something goes wrong (e.g. map incorrect about routes, road repair, accident, etc.). My point is this: unless you also do a proper risk analysis, all these simulations will always fall under the "ideal world" realm.

  • ORION

    It is amazing how drivers come out of the wood works to dispel a system that has either proved them wrong or that they have never used. I am an Orion supervisor and only 10 to 20 percent of the routes that are implemented are run better by the driver than the computer wants them to run. It is easy to say something doesn't work, but I have heard no actual proof from any of the drivers here that it doesn't. Grow up! What we have here is a way for the company to further monitor what drivers are doing. Is this necessary? Yes, definitely! Too many UPS employees, drivers and management alike, skip methods in an attempt to do a better job. What both of these groups miss is that despite the fact that we hate to be micro managed, we need it. I have been both. I did the driving job and cut corners, went out of the way to take care of customers, and did not follow the methods. I got schooled! Not by my sup but by my fellow driver. The highest paid driver in the country last year. He taught me how the methods work. In management I failed to learn from my mistake and had to be schooled again. The rules and methods that UPS uses are not just thrown out there without careful planning and research. The execution can lack what it needs from time to time but the problem comes when drivers or management like the ones here don't even give the program a chance. For anyone who does not know how the program works let me clarify please. First the supervisor assigned to your route checks what the driver has been doing, asks why, asks for suggestions, and rides along just to see what he cannot see on the computer. That sup then uses the algorithm to attempt to optimize the route in a way that takes care of all the things that the people who have commented here said that it couldn't do. Then the sup comes back out with the driver and makes sure that what they have put into the system works. Then the driver is paid by the company to run their route at 90% or better and to meet or beat the mileage. Is it perfect? Of course it isn't! Is it better than what you or I could do in our heads? Of course it is! The system works. How well? In a center with approximately 1000 more stops this year over last year, the system REDUCED mileage and HOURS. Yes BOTH! So now please tell me again with actual evidence why the system does not work.

  • Jeff Adams

    I've been on Orion for over a year and a half now. The big deal with this system is supposed to be delivering grounds with nda's in the same area, which is great. I do it all the time accordingly with my load. Delivering from the 8000 section in the morning is unrealistic. Backing into residential driveways is unsafe. Having stops left at the top of the board because I couldn't do them in the morning causes re-work situations from time to time. Congrats...the company saved $4 in fuel today but paid me an extra hour of o.t. to do it.

  • Jim Geaschel

    That might be how you want it to run, but that's not how it's being implemented. Our metric is 85%. Yes, you can beat the miles and trace percentages, but not without doing unnecessary backs. Also you lose time idling when attempting to turn left on busy roads with no traffic signals. Remember the right turn only campaign. Sorry but I think someone should tell the emperor he has no clothes on.

  • Trey Frady

    Here's a thought on how it's reducing miles and hours... you take a large country area that use to have 5 routes covering it. Each of these routes each run 160 miles a day (including the 20+ miles to the area from the hub) with 120 stops and planning for a 9 hour day. Now, you cut out one of those routes. The remaining 4 each get an additional 30 deliveries, 30 more miles, and 2 more hours to their work day. The company just cut 30 miles and one hour out of that area, and were able to do it with one less driver on the road. So, yeah, it does what it was designed to do. If they truly want it to work efficiently, they will have to crack down on our loaders to load packages in sequence rather than just "getting it on the truck". They will also have to go into the computer to put commit times on all businesses so it will plan for us to be there before they close.

  • It is also just as easy to ignore years of experience that your drivers have. While they don't have advanced degrees in Mathematics, they do have experience on traffic flow, road repairs, etc. As I mentioned above, unless a proper risk analysis is performed on the output of these simulations, these solutions are ideal at best, meaning everything has to work for the projected results to be met. It's not always the driver's fault. Just saying.

  • CanadianEH

    I was wondering, would it be possible to try Orion at my own company. We deliver and pickup five days a week with eight UPS style vehicles no the road. I've delivered all these routes and speak to my drivers daily. I am looking for an algorithmic partner to help us shave miles off our trucks and produce more efficient drivers.

  • Rickylee3740

    Fortunately I did my 25 and got out before a lot of this nonsense got started.  As a driver I did figure out that sometimes it's best to do it their stupid way and then after all the OJS rides and harassment you will finally win and they will leave you alone, until the next stupid idea.  You will never convince them they are stupid by arguing, you have to win the battle of numbers to get any piece there.  They once told me to deliver a particular road stat to finish rather than from each end or I was fired.  When I called them to send me wrecker because I tried to drive through a creek several feet deep because that's where their map told me to go they finally came out to my route.  A diesel engine later and a "moved" supervisor I didn't have any problems for a while.

  • Nathan C

    So lets save money on gas and wear and tear on the trucks. But have more drivers do less amounts of stops, run more trucks which means more gas anyways for those and more drivers to run those trucks. then have customers unhappy cause we can't make at the same time we usually always do cause we have to listen to the mathematic ways. You tell me how to dig a pkg out of a bricked out truck during Christmas. I'll have 50 stops off in 8 hours when I can do 500 in that time my way. That makes money and saves at the same time. But then again I wouldn't mind doing 50 stops at Christmas. :P

  • BestFloatingDriver

    i stopped reading when this douche bag compared himself to Einstein... Get in a truck a$$hole!  (emphasis on the $$)

  • Joe P.

    FedEx pays 3 drivers to drive 3 trucks and deliver on the same street everyday lol idiots

  • Reggie

    More 'how to do your job' coming from those that have never done the job...and that's why you're getting a haircut while the ice cream melts.

    So, how many packages has Levis, or his team delivered?! My guess is zero, they're too busy taking about how it should be done over lunch while real people make it happen every day...

  • Driver

    You're right there are an infinite amount of variables involved. Traffic patterns to avoid, schools, commit times, one way streets,  positioning your truck so that you are parked on the correct side of a street because of a 100 pound package. I could go on for hours. There is only one computer that can do all that, the human brain.

    I been a driver for 15 years ( still a rookie). I've been on the same route for 10 years. One of the greatest assets UPS has is driver knowledge. Yet rarely does management ask us about our route knowledge.We have people dispatching our routes that have never ever been on any of the streets in our area. We have people in other states telling our management team how many routes to put out. And now a computer to tell us which way to turn or which stop to go to next, oy vey. I am oftentimes  truly amazed that we are able to accomplish what we do. Don't get me wrong I think UPS does a great job in delivering packages, but much of it is in spite of management. Not a whole lot of because of management's help.

    Here's an idea. Have a feature in our DIAD that actually let's us save the way we deliver our routes on a particular day.  We are creatures of habit. Our customers love us for our "same time" habits. And get angry when we break those habits. The safest and fastest way for us to complete our routes is to repeat what we do over and over again. WIth a save feature once our route is right it can than be loaded and dispatched in the same way over and over again. Use your greatest asset to your advantage. Right now we often have someone with no knowledge doing the dispatch, crazy.

    Let your program start by how analyzing how we run the route. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Analyze and make suggestions on how it can be done better, and you will have a willing audience. Tell us what we are doing wrong and it will fall on deaf ears. Every UPS driver I know  has one goal in mind at the start of the day. And that is to finish as quickly as possible and get home to our families. I don't know of one driver who wants to stay in that truck any longer than he has to. Anything that helps us get home sooner, I'm all for. Good luck.

  • Sup

    Unfortunately I know plenty of drivers who stay out only to make money. To say that there aren't a ton of drivers like that is a complete lie and you know it. Furthermore, ORION is doing very close to what you are suggesting. The team comes in and checks what you do and makes suggestions. Some times you may agree and others you won't. Regardless, the system helps you do your job faster and doesn't make you any less safe unless you are doing your job incorrectly.

  • Jill Calame Stuart

    My only question is why would management spend a billion dollars before fixing the EDD trace? A simple save feature on the DIAD would save far more money than what this salesman made by selling this to UPS management!

  • Driver from above

    There is 30 something drivers in my group, and "maybe" there might be one that "stays out to make money". 1 out of 30.... but thats just like a Sup to place the "plenty" label when you know at most it is only 1 or 2 bad apples. The overwhelming vast majority want to go home to their families ASAP....just like you. Why do you think so many file 9.5..... because they want to stay out there?

    In my case, I run over almost 2 hours a day, yet my SPORH is 18 to 20. I am in the top 1 or 2 in being over allowed, yet i'm in the top 1 or 2 for SPORH... explain that? Am I also staying out "just to make money"? 10 years and no time study, on a mall route with sometimes 100 resys added. How can we take any over / under serious when management refuse to correct bad time allowances. It works both ways. Every manager/on car Sup I have had, acknowledges my time study is bad, and that's why they leave me alone. But not one has been able to get it fixed. The UPS way, don't fix anything, just cover your butt and make sure you don't have to be on that conference call in the morning.

    As for ORION I stated I would be open for suggestions. If it can help..great. But how to run my route effectively is not the real issue. DISPATCH and LOAD are the issues that has the most negative impact on UPS's bottom line.. Management should take their heads out of the sand and face what the real issues are. But no ORION is right in line with how management thinks....the drivers must be doing something wrong. When in fact the Driver's are probably the strongest link in the chain.

    No the easiest, safest and most cost effective way for me to run my route is to get my load and dispatch right. Having a save feature is simple and would accomplish at least a big part of the load issue. And would probably cost next to nothing to implement as well. The effect on UPS 's bottom line would be immediate.

    Getting my dispatch right....well I realize thats a work in progress.

    Fact is I spend 20-25 minutes plus, sorting my truck ( thats with a good loader) after my business stops. My residentials are not in any usable order, nor is my EDD. Do you know how many times I have tried to get it fixed? I gave up a long time ago ( just like asking for a time study), I might as well beat my head against the wall. I am one driver, how many others spend that amount of time each and every day?

    Do I blame my management team.....hell no. In fact I have a great relationship with most of my sups. They know I am doing the best I can, and I know they are as well. Doesn't mean we always agree. But I do realize they are as over worked as any driver, plus they have the unnecessary stress from those above. Exactly why I am not a Sup.

    And one last thing, I am not a malcontent who hates my job. On the contrary, I appreciate the opportunities that UPS has given me to provide for my family. But that doesn't mean I should keep quiet if I think we could be doing things better. Does ORION makes us better...maybe and if so great. But that doesn't mean what I suggested wouldn't also help.