Railway Age, May 1994

Fix the Process!

You want a box car in a hurry? Murray has a friend. Your Class I car supply channels are too slow? Murray knows a way around them. Years of networking and favor-trading is how he does it, and having a Murray in your hip pocket can be a tremendous asset.

But the liability side of that asset is that every time a Murray cuts a corner he interrupts somebody else's due process. And when others start cutting corners and calling in their own chips, Murray will be caught short, thereby proving-to him and you at least-that the process doesn't work.

If you short-stop the car ordering process because the process "doesn't work," what you're really saying is you can't rely on the process. So you end-run the process and take pot luck on car availability, which means the customer may or may not get what he wants. But at least you're off the hook because you can blame the car ordering process which you don't control.

Problems occur when the system doesn't get the data it needs to function. As one short line found out, the car order process worked well except when the car order clerk was away from his desk. So they shifted from phone messages to faxes, fixing the process and getting their cars.

To be sure, ferreting out the problem took more effort than simply calling a Murray favor. But Murray favors are doubly damaging. Not only do they fail to get at the root cause of process failure, they cause further process failure as other customers are shorted cars and their Murrays call their favors.

Moreover, a process is a result, not a cause. You don't wake up one morning and decide to invent a process. That would be like deciding it would be nice to have a hammer, buying one, and going around looking for things to hit. You buy a hammer because you need to fasten pieces of wood together with nails and occasionally yank out your mistakes. You need the right tool for the job and set up a buying process to get it.

You pass by the ball peens and hand mallets and tack hammers and settle on a well-made claw hammer with a comfortable heft, made by a dependable outfit, and at a reasonable price. You buy it from the hardware store, not a discount chain--because they'll answer your questions and you know they don't sell things that break. In other words, you've selected a vendor according to value.

So why is it, when we leave the hardware store and go to the office, we take off our customer hats and put on our producer hats?

We must learn to think like our customers if we are to succeed. We have to be more like the man in the store. We have to ask ourselves whether we're selling what customers are buying. Does the transportation process we sell give the shipper the right market access tool?

The successful short line railroad transportation store stocks a number of items in inventory. One size no longer fits all, and the short line is flexible enough to supply custom solutions to logistical problems. Let the Class Is do the long- distance terminal-to-terminal wholesaling. We're in the retail business.

So if the customer wants a tack hammer (four cars a day) and all we have is hand mallets (two cars a day), we lose the sale. If we provide the right tools, we win the sale. Do it often enough and we win a loyal customer.

And where car demand exceeds car supply using the existing process, it's time to fix the process. Everybody knows "railroads don't lease tank cars." But if that's what the buisness demands, there is a process at hand. And the short line's in the best position to set it up.

But we can't provide the right transportation tool unless our production process works. Railroads as a whole perform only as well as the sum of their parts. Everything we do with power or track affects train performance and vice versa. And both affect our customers' access to logistical tools. Which is why everybody on the railroad has to think like a customer.

We have a long way to go, too. There are still short line managers who fault shippers for "not understanding" how the railroad works. Locomotives are old and you can't tell what part will fail next. Or the rail is wearing out and you never know where it will break next. And because customers don't understand how the railroad works you never know what they'll ask for next.

Achieving reliability and dependability sometimes seems a daunting task. But there are tools that take a lot of the chance and expense out of your maintenance process and add reliability to your process. Take power, for instance. One line was plagued with road failures: every time they'd fix one thing, something else would break. And it seemed the only way they'd ever get ahead would be to have a crystal ball to predict what would break next so they could fix beforehand.

The crystal ball was already in their hands: the daily report card on each locomotive. They began logging every failure and date on a PC-based program to determine mean time between failures and then sort by locomotive or failure to spot trends. The payoff came when they used this tool as an inspection guide and found parts that were about to fail and replaced them on the spot. As a result, road failures have been virtually eliminated.

You can do the same thing with track, too. Every time your crew repairs a defect, log the time, place, circumstances, rail weight, manufacturer, date, type, etc. Sort by defect, rail type, service, or anything else and see what trends develop. Then go walk the railroad looking for trouble.

Fixing the process is a good way to safeguard our business. Isn't it time we gave it a try?

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