There are moments when a telling glance and a passing remark can capture the essence of modest revolution. Marla Fling had just ended a meeting with a vendor who was making a bid to install a music system at Roadway Express Inc.'s break-bulk terminal outside Akron, Ohio. One of the union stewards stopped her and asked, "You're talking about having music on the dock?" Then, in disbelief: "For real?"
He had good reason to be amazed. At Roadway, as with much of the trucking industry, workers have grown accustomed to reacting (happily or not) to management fiat — and, most recently, to layoffs. But tunes on the loading dock? That was an idea they had come up with. And Fling, a line-haul driver, was one of them.
Here is Roadway's head-slapping realization: To compete in an industry in which net profit margins are less than 5% in a good year — let alone in a year when business is contracting — every one of its 28,000 employees must be a leader.
"Almost two-thirds of our every revenue dollar is consumed by wages and benefits," says Roadway president and COO James Staley, 51. "There's not a lot of new technology that's going to make us more efficient. So future opportunities are going to come from our people being more involved in the business."
Now, together with David Cooperrider, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management, Roadway is bringing that premise to life on the loading dock. Using a collaborative process developed by Cooperrider called "appreciative inquiry," the trucking giant has begun to engage its heavily unionized workforce in ways that hardly seemed possible just five years ago.
At the Akron terminal, that engagement began in January. A steering committee of workers from across the facility was put together to plan an off-site aimed at setting a course for the future. Their first task was to decide who among the terminal's 687 employees would be invited to attend. The goal was to create a microcosm of the company, with workers from all departments and all functions and with varying degrees of empathy for Roadway's corporate objectives.
A few weeks later, 88 employees gathered at a local Holiday Inn for the three-day off-site. Then Cooperrider posed his first challenge: "Talk about a time when you felt the most alive, the most engaged, in your job at Roadway." The wording was purely intentional — a signal that this wasn't going to be the usual management-labor gripe session. Cooperrider's second challenge fed off the first: "Imagine that you've woken up after being asleep for five years. What would you want Roadway to look like?"
When participants paired off to discuss their responses, they made a surprising discovery. "It didn't matter what your job was," says John Duncan, 57, who has been a Roadway driver for 24 years. "Everyone wanted the same things." Things such as sustained growth, happy customers, job security. In short, all of these employees wanted to win.
Over the next three days, the summit participants moved from mission to plan. They drew an "opportunity map" of needs and priorities, and voted on which ones were most pressing. Then they organized into seven action teams. One group would address the trust gap between management and the union. Another would devise strategies to turn drivers — the Roadway employees who have the most contact with the company's customers — into de facto sales reps. Other teams would address employee communications, performance measurement and monitoring, and education.
The workers understand that their efforts to transform Roadway are just the beginning. Even with Staley's blessing, it is difficult to forge cooperative programs in a deteriorating business environment. One hopeful indicator: The company already has scheduled a similar summit to be held this month at its Chicago Heights, Illinois terminal. And this time, they're reserving a room for 250.
Visit Roadway Express Inc. on the Web (www.roadway.com).
Sidebar: Road Scholar
David Cooperrider, 46, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, has led "appreciative inquiry" summits for such organizations as GTE, the Red Cross, and Verizon since 1985. Here's how those summits work.
Wholeness. At the start, representatives from all parts of the system must participate — workers from all functions who barely know one another. Wholeness evokes trust and connectedness, and it forces people to see a purpose greater than their own.
Discovery. On the summit's first day, participants explore their organization's "positive change core." They ask, Who are we? What do we do well? What are our hopes for the future?
Dream. On day two, participants break into small groups and envision their organization's potential for positive influence and impact: What will the company look like in 2010? What will be happening in the world outside it? What is the best outcome we can imagine? The groups then report back to the entire summit.
Design. Participants focus on crafting an organization that incorporates the positive change core into every strategy, process, and system. The result: action-oriented statements of how the organization will function.
Destiny. On the final day, participants distill their organizational design into a list of "inspired actions." Task groups emerge around each action. If successful, these groups will sustain themselves long after the summit ends.
Contact David Cooperrider by email (email@example.com).
A version of this article appeared in the July 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.