Railway Age, November 1993

Beyond the Buzzwords

Conrail president Jim Hagen says, "To do a quality job, we've got to go beyond the buzzwords. There's still a lot to be done, and paying attention to detail is a big part of it."

Hagen's audience was Conrail's connecting short lines and the Conrail staffers who work with them. This annual short line meeting's theme was "strengthening partnerships," and Hagen's associates at Conrail echoed his message: it's necessary to get beyond those inspirational buzzwords such as quality and partnership -- beyond them to the unglamorous and sometimes mind-numbing little details that give shape to quality rail transportation and Class I/short line partnerships.

Hagen is surely on the right track, because Conrail gets more things right more often than any of the Class I roads I work with. Here's the kind of detail work they're doing: their Industrial Service Exception Program (ISEP) is designed to get a car -- empty or loaded -- from the serving yard to placement in 16 hours or less. Jim Beard, general manager of the Indianapolis Division, credits ISEP with boosting the efficiency of his division's use of resources.

For now, Conrail's connecting short lines can only be envious of the power and responsiveness of ISEP. But our day is coming: they're looking at applying ISEP to cars for short line interchanges, so that we and our shippers can also benefit. To bring short lines into the ISEP arena, Beard would like a wider dialog with his short line partners -- as does every other division manager I heard.

Where our Class I partners are concerned, the bottom line is our careful attention to all the details that will make a move work for us -- because, given the wildly different scales on which the Class I and the short line operate, the Class I simply can't afford to give one of our moves the time it takes to think it through properly. We short line managers, on the other hand, can. What's more, we must.

As Mark Bennett, Director of Feeder Line Development at CSX, suggests: get to the core issue, and don't leave a lot of questions for the Class I to figure out. Here's an example to illustrate what Bennett means by this.

CSX was the Class I line in the middle of a three-line move -- a TOFC train of fresh oranges from South Central Florida Railroad-served groves to a processing plant on the Florida Central. Clearly, this was a far more significant move for the originating and destination lines than for CSX. To make it work, the short lines had to identify exactly what they needed from CSX. What's more, they had to do all the planning and selling themselves.

Mountains of details make up any successful service planning project. Those are the details you gathered when you went to see the customer and learn his needs -- and then did your homework to see what you had in your toolkit of capabilities that could be used or modified to meet his needs. The next step is to look at all the details again so that, as Gordon Kuhn, Senior VP for Marketing at Conrail, says, you can make changes to meet customer requirements, simplify processes, and control the costs.

Now, we short line managers may be scratching our heads and thinking that all this "planning and selling" razzle- dazzle is beyond us. After all, what we're good at is keeping motive power and track intact, often with severely limited resources of time, manpower and money. But the plain truth is that it's precisely the skills that make us good short line managers that can equip us to look at the detailed information we've amassed andand come up with new ways to move our shippers' products more efficiently and economically. It's very much like going into our engine shop, surveying shelves full of miscellaneous uncategorized stuff, and coming up with the Mystery Widget that miraculously solves today's mechanical dilemma. With that same scavenger-hunt mentality, a southern short line looked at the problems of running a unit train for one of its customers and realized that the second-best interchange with its Class I, virtually unused most of the time, offered unexpected advantages for this particular move. That's a marketing insight, and it brought them hundreds of new carloads of business, and it was hatched by a confirmed operations man. Another marketing innovation came from an exasperated office manager. When she ordered cars she was faced with two scenarios, both of them irksome. To get consistency of service, she needed to deal with one person; but that often meant having to play telephone tag. Her solution: faxed car orders, giving her consistency and convenience and giving her shippers more responsive and reliable car supply.

This is probably not exactly what Jim Hagen meant when he said it, but it may be that one of the most important benefits of going beyond the buzzwords, for us as shortliners, is that it frees us to do what we do best. If we think that continuous quality improvement or partnershipping are complicated and difficult concepts, then the buzzwords are getting in our way. We need to realize that using these concepts really means applying our scrounging, finagling, scavenging skills to the marketing arena to deliver results to our customers. Results beat buzzwords in my book any day -- and in Jim Hagen's too, I bet.

Return to:

Created July 31, 1995. Send comments to lblanchard@aol.com