The making of a UPS driver (p. 2)

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer

Even when upstart Federal Express (Charts, Fortune 500) began aggressively adopting new technology in the 1970s and 1980s, UPS stubbornly stood by its human engineering strategy, spending years in R&D before introducing the DIAD. This is a company that's incredibly stuck in its ways. But despite being the old man of the industry, the world's largest package-delivery company has stayed competitive, delivering an average of over 15 million packages a day - twice as many as FedEx.

The rivalry with FedEx - which posted $35.2 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2007 and has led in the express-delivery category since it debuted the service in the 1970s - continues to drive innovation. Since UPS went public in 1999, however, its stock has been something of a disappointment - rising just 50% to $75 from an initial offering price of $50. And though it has struggled with labor issues over the years - it took a 15-day Teamsters union strike in 1997 - this September the company reached a tentative five-year agreement with the union that reportedly will raise Teamsters' pay and benefits.

Big brown

The driver job isn't just lucrative, it's also sexy - at least according to the Wall Street Journal, which in 1995 declared, "In the UPS Man, Some Women Find a Complete Package ... Oh, Those Brown Duds."

The UPS story began in 1907, when a teenager named Jim Casey founded the American Messenger Co. as a bicycle messenger service with his friend Claude Ryan and a $100 loan from Ryan's uncle. A merger in 1913 shifted the Seattle company's focus from messenger services to home delivery, and when Seattle's leading department stores became clients, having a brown car from the renamed Merchants Parcel Delivery pull up to one's home became a sign of status. (Brown was chosen for its dirt-disguising properties.)

Once the company expanded down the West Coast, it began offering common-carrier services to the public, putting it in direct competition with the U.S. Postal Service. To manage the increased volume, the company introduced its first conveyor-belt system in 1924.

Expansion continued until, in 1975, UPS became the first package-delivery company to serve the entire continental U.S. In the 1990s the focus turned to new technology: The DIAD, introduced in 1991, is now in its fourth generation; UPS's fleet of jets is the world's eighth-largest airline; the company's "preload assist system," or PAS, automates its meticulous loading process.

Casey, the founder, never married, and just two months before his death in 1983 he attended a UPS board meeting. UPS people at all levels quote him so often it's funny. "You can't be a big person until you've shown competence as a small one," a staffer tells me, reciting a line from a pamphlet Casey wrote in 1958 called "Determined Men." Both DSP Plateroti and CEO Eskew have noted nonchalantly that in 1956, Casey told UPSers to be "constructively dissatisfied."

Casey's words even serve as art in UPS's Atlanta headquarters - itself a museum-cum-shrine since the company moved there in 1991 - where a glass wall reads, "Our horizon is as distant as our mind's eye wishes it to be." The building's lobby features a brown Model T Ford, a replica of the original "package car," so named because when the company began making deliveries, trucks didn't exist. (Later, when trucks appeared on the scene, the company kept the package-car moniker because it didn't like the sound of "truck driver," according to UPS's archivist.)

"UPS culture is hard to describe," says Eskew, who recently announced he'll be leaving in January, having completed the five-year tenure that's become customary for UPS CEOs, and will be succeeded by CFO Scott Davis. "But when you walk in here, you can feel it. We all realize we're part of something bigger than ourselves, and I think that crosses generations. It speaks to everybody."

A hands-on approach

When Stephen Jones began examining the problem of training the untrainable Gen Yers back in 2003, he didn't have much to go on. The numbers told him that the company's existing training program wasn't working, and the popular media seemed to be saying that gaming was the answer. That, Jones thought, was the way this new generation learned, so he enlisted Francis "Skip" Atkinson, a former professor of instructional technology at Georgia State University, to do a full literature review - a step for which there's usually no time or money in corporate settings - and conduct focus groups with UPS employees. "We thought we were going to design a bunch of videogames," Jones says. "Then the research came back, and we did a complete 180."

What Atkinson's team uncovered in focus groups with Gen Y employees was surprising in its simplicity. "To a person, they said give me hands-on," Atkinson says. "They liked the interaction with the computer, but they didn't like learning from it necessarily. We found out very quickly that a lot of the studies out there had been done with a very select audience - college-bound, usually white, in affluent suburbs, able to afford these electronic toys - and that had nothing to do with the part-time loaders coming up through the organization at UPS."

But the most profound problem, according to Atkinson, was the disconnect between part-timers' expectations about the driver position and the reality of the job. New hires had so limited an understanding of the demands of driving for UPS that, once on the road, they were practically shocked into failure. They needed what would come to be known among Integrad insiders as "technology-enhanced hands-on learning." So UPS enlisted the help of Virginia Tech, sending two managers to the university for a year and a half to help design students there turn Atkinson's recommendations into a training program.

Situated in an industrial park across the street from the area UPS center, the Integrad warehouse doesn't look like much from the outside. But just inside the door is a sight that's at once familiar and surreal: a transparent UPS package car, complete with rows of (weighted) packages inside. Its incongruous surroundings - close yellow walls and gray linoleum floor - only underscore its big-toy appeal.

But its purpose is far from silly. Selection is the most fundamental part of a UPS driver's job, and yet it can seem impossible when you're staring into the gaping back door of a package car, desperately trying to figure out where your five packages are and how you're going to get them out in the 65.5 seconds Jim Casey and his heartless minions have allotted you. It's a lot to grasp in a lecture. But being able to watch an instructor demonstrate this selection process in an actual package car - with the same shelving system, odd-sized packages, and cramped space drivers have on-road - and getting the chance to try it yourself before your first trip out could make all the difference.

The same goes for the 340 methods (there are actually many more than 340 by now, but the name endures). These are so specific that they include everything from where to get gas - waiting for a station on the right side of the street reduces idling time and is safer than turning into oncoming traffic - to which finger to carry your keys on (hooking them on the ring finger puts the key in position for your index finger and thumb to turn it in the ignition and pull it out in one motion). It may seem fussy, but when Jones, the director, who is less than svelte, pirouettes through the motions, he is transformed by his muscle memory into a veritable Fred Astaire.

Down the line, another package car is equipped with force sensors in its handrail, in its bottom step, and on a large plate on the ground below. In a job as physical as a UPS driver's is - he must be able to "continuously lift and lower packages that range up to 70 pounds each ... while 'unloading' at a rate of 800 to 1,300 packages per hour and while 'loading' at a rate of 500 to 800 packages per hour," says a casual list of essential job functions - one of the most difficult things to teach young Supermen is how frail their bodies really are. Grow lax with your three points of contact and you can be sure you'll be growing old - with a hobble and a cane - before your time. And what better way to show that than with a computer-generated force diagram? Students take a few hops off the truck with and without the handrail, and immediately, they can see a representation of the impact on their bodies.

It's elaborate, but Jones and his colleagues have come to believe it's also essential. Because the young people they're trying to train aren't just Generation Y, they're Generation Why? - a tribe of disbelievers who've learned to question absolutely everything. And they need the obstacle course of Integrad not because they won't take notes in a lecture but because without these demonstrations they may not believe a word of what they hear.

It's an idea probably best embodied by the lift-and-lower simulator, a series of cameras in the cab of another package car arranged to capture trainees' posture as they lift and lower packages. These images are saved on a digital video recorder for later review. "The thing about young people is that they're never wrong," says Jones. "Tell them what they did incorrectly, and they'll tell you, 'I didn't do that. You saw wrong.' This way we've got it on tape and they can see it for themselves."

The final kinetic-learning module - or for non-academicians, hands-on learning tool - is the crowd-favorite slip-and-fall simulator. UPS incurs significant costs every year from slips and falls, and it is first-year drivers who succumb the most. Lucky for first-years then that Thurmon Lockhart, director of the Locomotion Research Laboratory at Virginia Tech, has devoted his entire life to the issue. In his studies Lockhart has found that the only way to help people avoid falling is to "perturb" them - i.e., to put them through the motions of falling - which causes their bodies to adjust during subsequent encounters with falling hazards.

To that end, Lockhart's lab houses a falling machine - a nine-foot-high metal frame with a body harness attached to it. A subject puts on the harness and gets comfortable walking back and forth, and then someone sneaks up behind her and spills soapy water, causing the subject to slip, scream, and flail around before getting caught by the harness. It sounds funny - until you wipe out.

For the record, having experienced this first-hand, I was perturbed, and my gait remains adjusted. "This type of research has been going on since the 1920s," Lockhart says, "but UPS is going to be the first to apply it. And when their guys get out of the program, they'll almost be ergonomists. The training is that good." Now there's a shiny new brown version of the simulator at the training center.

There is, of course, also driving done at Integrad. An outdoor parking lot - called the integration station - has been turned into a mini-town where trainees can put what they've learned into practice. There are real street and stop signs, a toy house and toy stores, a UPS dropbox, and even a loading dock, which was being cemented into the ground during my tour. Trainees will travel these streets every afternoon, with tasks increasing in difficulty each day, and facilitators and fellow trainees standing in as customers to test them on the finer points of customer service.

And while there aren't any videogames in the Integrad curriculum per se, there sure are a lot of screens. Students log in to watch animated demonstrations of tasks, take quizzes on what they've learned, and conduct simulations with special teaching DIADs connected via Bluetooth. And in true mechanical UPS fashion, they get ... scores! Every piece of data - from a student's performance on a particular module to comments from his facilitator - is stored in a new database tool developed by Virginia Tech design students. It will continue to map trainees' progress once they become drivers, and it's customized for each level of the UPS hierarchy, so that a region manager can log on for general stats about his districts' performance, and a supervisor meeting a new driver for the first time will already know every single possible thing there is to know about him.

The pilot program began with 24 students and five facilitators. Each session runs for five days, for a total of 48 hours, and there will be nine more sessions this year before the company begins to tabulate the data. All involved can't stop stressing that this is only a pilot, but if it's deemed to be a success - which, for the determined Jones, would mean a 15% reduction in accidents by first-year drivers and a 20% reduction in injuries for the same group -work will begin on 14 more sites around the country.

In the long run, the hope is that young drivers will begin to learn what dispatch supervisor and former DSP Veronica Reisinger calls "the why." "A lot of people outside of the organization don't fully understand how much work it is, how quick we have to be, how much we have to know," the 29-year-old says. "I learned my methods, but I just kind of memorized them and could spout them off. I don't think I fully understood them until I got on the road. I didn't get the 'why.'"

Learning from the legends

For all that can be learned from the hands-on and technology-enhanced, the best place for Yers to learn the "why" may ultimately be from - horror of horrors - their older baby-boomer and World War II-era teachers.

"Yers have a great appreciation of reputation and expertise," says Tamara Erickson, president of the Concours Institute research firm. "To the extent they can hear from a person who's done it for 30 years, and hear what worked for him or her, they respond to that. And if there's someone who's legendary - a god of drivers, say - even better."

This afternoon's legend-in-residence at Integrad is Don Petersik, a tall older gentleman with a ready smile and firm handshake. Petersik is set to retire in January, and his last assignment as the company's star facilitator is to train the facilitators at Integrad. The assembled UPSers ask him to tell me a story, and he obliges. Long ago, when he was just a long-haired hippie preloader, the story goes, a stooped, suited Jim Casey - evidently on a corporate visit - walked over to the oblivious youngster and said, "Hi, I'm Jim. I work for UPS."

"Afterward, everyone came running up to me asking if I knew who he was, but all he'd said was, 'I work for UPS.' And that's the thing about this place," Petersik says, gesturing at the surroundings. "It's a fuse. What's new about the company now is that our teaching style matches your learning styles. But we're still taking care of the customer - at my wedding, half the guests were my customers. That hasn't changed in 100 years."

But that isn't the only thing that's remained the same these last 100 years. While customers may be at the heart of UPS's business, it's drivers who are at the heart of UPS itself. And even today they carry the weight of their obligation - abbreviations and all - with such effortlessness that it's easy to believe they're just carrying boxes around.

But watch closely and those deliveries become something else entirely - an exhibition of routines so precise they never vary, limbs so trained they need no direction, and words so long remembered, they are like one's own thoughts. It's something I experienced my first day with UPS, as I did the rounds with Plateroti, though I couldn't have named it yet. And I've been watching it ever since, each time I pass a package car on the road or share an elevator with my UPS driver.

"I see you're wearing your shorts today," a customer said to Plateroti and me that first afternoon, "keeping cool while you're running around." And Plateroti replied cheerfully, without a moment's hesitation: "Not running. Walking at a brisk pace."  Top of page

previous