Redefining Impossible

imageSo, apparently I am at that age that when one starts thinking about someone from one’s distant past, chance are good that they have died. I was going through my notes for this post and I was pretty sure that I was spelling Roy Liljebeck’s name wrong. Unfortunately, I discovered the correct spelling in his obituary from earlier this year. I doubt very much that Roy would have remembered me, but I remember my two meetings with him as if they took place yesterday.

A little background – I met Roy when I worked for Airborne Freight in the late 1970’s; I was an entry level Methods Analyst, he was the Executive VP of Finance. Needless to say, Roy and I didn’t pal around much. I was working on a project to centralize invoicing from all of Airborne’s domestic stations and print them daily in Seattle. I had inherited this system after it was designed, and I was responsible for planning the implementation. It’s important to understand that the primary reason for building this system was to reduce the “receivables lag,” the time between when a shipment is invoiced and the payment is received. Airborne’s problem was that station personnel were not mailing invoices – they were moving and delivering shipments. In some of the largest stations, invoices would sit for up to two weeks until there were enough to justify hiring a temp to stuff them into envelopes. Centralizing the printing, stuffing and sending in Seattle could cut that down to two days. The fact that it was two days was important, and that was the subject of my first meeting with Roy.

I had prepared a presentation explaining the process and the constraints. Keep in mind, this is pre-PCs and pre-PowerPoint, so this was a fact-sheet and a 24 year-old kid talking to three Executive VP’s and the company President. Despite my almost total lack of presentation skills, I covered the bases:

  1. Our processing window was after the Los Angeles office finished processing Airbills and before the New York office opened – 1:00 am – 4:00 am PST
  2. We shared that window with a ton of other processes so it was likely that we wouldn’t actually be done printing the several thousand invoices until between 6:00 am and 7:00
  3. The cut-off time for First Class mail to be treated as being “sent” that day , was 9:00 am.

Even with the aid of equipment, the invoices could not be stuffed into envelopes, metered and delivered to the Post Office by 9:00 am. 2 days it was, or so I had concluded. Roy felt differently.

Airborne published an internal newsletter that featured the “shipment of the month.” The most recent issue highlighted a guy in Philadelphia who had arranged to ship a Cheesesteak sandwich to his brother in San Francisco. Roy held that up and said:

“If we can ship a sandwich from Philadelphia to San Francisco before the cheese gets hard, we can damn well send them the invoice the next day!”

That was it, no discussion, no time for rebuttal; I had my orders.image

I did some research, and found a complex in-line mailing machine made by Bell & Howell, that could be programmed to take invoices printed “2-up” (side by side) and slit them, burst them apart and, working from codes printed on the invoice, organize them into piles and stuff them into envelopes at a speed that would enable us to meet the 9:00 cutoff. It would cost $135,000 but the extra day cut from the receivable lag would offset that over time – mission accomplished.

Fast forward to the following May, and my second encounter with Roy. This was going to be nothing but good news, or so I thought. The invoicing system had been completed early, testing was done, the invoices had been redesigned, the in-line mailer had been ordered and Centralized Invoicing would be operational when the mailer was delivered in June.

Roy: “June? I thought you said the system was done.”

Me: “It is, but without the in-line mailer, there’s no way to slit, burst and stuff the invoices.”

Roy: “Earlier, you said there was no way to meet the 9:00 am cutoff, but there was. Are you sure there’s no way to stuff these into envelopes?”

I was impressed that he remembered the details of our first meeting, but I was also reminded of how he had made me feel like an inept school boy at that meeting. I was starting to feel the same way again. I had grown a bit more confident since our first encounter, and I have always had a tendency to speak before thinking. The Mariel boatlift had begun that April, and several hundred Cuban refugees were being housed in a closed Federal prison south of Seattle. So, I replied:

“Well, I guess you could drag a bunch of Cubans up here every day to stuff envelopes, but other than that, NO, there’s no way!”

His reply stunned me:

“That’s an excellent idea! The refugees are looking for work, we have a fleet of vans and we can carve some space out in the parking garage. Make that happen.”

I made those arrangements, and the “process” worked quite nicely. One of the refugees emerged as a leader and was hired to run the mailing operation after the in-line mailer arrived. Roy had forever redefined “impossible” for me.

There are almost 1,000 quotes available online regarding “impossible” but my favorite one is from Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise when he barked to Commander Data:

Things are only impossible until they’re not!

9 thoughts on “Redefining Impossible

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  1. Upper picture – There are only so many places to put the snow, and in 2010, we were running out of room. One more storm and I would be trying to blow this stuff 30’ into our front yard because it was bouncing off of this pile.

    Lower picture – This is very similar to the size and shape of the inline mailer that we purchased in 1980. Thanks to the very nice people at EP Solutions ( for letting me use this photo.


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