Magazine article Training & Development

Right from the Top, Right from the Start

Magazine article Training & Development

Right from the Top, Right from the Start

Article excerpt

Fred Smith founded Federal Express in 1973. Its first overnight delivery was eight packages. On a typical day now it handles a million and a half deliveries.

It also exemplifies the best about the strategic uses of training to achieve corporate goals--in this case, 100 percent customer satisfaction.

We visited Smith at his Memphis, Tennessee, office to ask about his role in making that happen.

T&D: You have a reputation for being a fanatic about customer service and quality. What made you that way?

Smith: Quality was really part of the culture from the outset. I think it came from the fundamental recognition that in providing time-definite transportation, quality was really all that we were selling.

T&D: There was no event or circumstance that made you see the light?

Smith: No. We weren't like companies that saw foreign competitors coming and then got motivated to go through some kind of transformation process.

On a personal level I suppose I came to the conclusion (that quality mattered) through academic study of ideas that later became popularized by Dr. Deming and others.

Let me give you an example. People talk about just-in-time transportation, and how it's a new idea. But just-in-time philosophies go back to a famous econometrician at MIT, Professor Forrester. His articles about doing away with multilayered distribution and substituting time-certain transportation could have been written yesterday, even though he wrote them 30 years ago.

At any rate, there was certainly no moment of revelation and no mentor who took me by the scruff of the neck and said, "Look, this is what you have to do."

T&D: What is your personal role in getting the message about quality and customer service out to the company?

Smith: As you said, being a fanatic is helpful. On occasion it's useful to get indignant, though never to the point of berating or embarrassing anyone. Sometimes we'll be in a very self-congratulatory meeting after we've hit 99 percent service levels, and I'll go berserk about the 1 percent we didn't get.

It's necessary to point out to folk that quality is a continuous process and that even a small percentage is the difference between success and failure.

The second thing that helps deliver the message is to be supportive of efforts that we know have payoff but are very hard to quantify. I think the two biggest enemies of quality management are the budget process and organizational structures, because most quality issues cut across organizations and our budgets are always in vertical segments. So we sub-optimize.

It's important to be a champion sometimes of things that people know have to be done but don't know how to get justified under the traditional ROI approach.

Our training programs are very much that way. You could never justify the cost of our FXTV network or our interactive videodisk training system or the amount of time we put into our Leadership Institute, but if you ask me, those would be among the top ten highest payoff projects we've ever done at Federal Express. Maybe even in the top three.

I also try to support the quality improvement process a lot. I give a talk to every management class at the Leadership Institute and I go to quality presentations and try to reinforce their messages.

T&D: What do you do about people who just won't get on board?

Smith: People who don't get on board the quality process in this day and age are committing industrial hara-kiri. We have to bring them around. There's no substitute for action. It would be like having an existentialist in the Marine Corps. Both are admirable but they just don't mix. You need your existentialists at Oxford and the Marines in Kuwait.

We don't have many slots for people who are not really quality-oriented. But it hasn't been a big problem for FedEx. …

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