Labor Day – Lessons

The headquarters of Airborne Freight in 1978

I began working for Airborne Freight as a “Methods Analyst” in 1978. My job was to find ways to improve business processes. As the new guy, I was given the job of planning the implementation of a computer system that had been designed by one of the senior analysts. The goal of the system was to centralize the printing and mailing of invoices from all over the country, in Airborne’s home office in Seattle, Washington.

This was important because, although invoices were printed daily in the stations, the station staff was loath to stuff them into envelopes and mail them. If you don’t send an invoice, you don’t get paid. In some cases, invoices would sit for weeks. 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 Liljebeck, Airborne’s Executive VP of Finance.

Roy was literally and figuratively several levels above me. He sat at the organizational level of my boss’s boss’s boss, and was cloistered on the top floor where one faced a menacing receptionist upon exiting the elevator. Roy and I didn’t pal around much.

When I was summoned to explain the process and the constraints of mailing invoices, I was scared. I was 24, one-year out of graduate school, and I hadn’t been in many meetings. My “presentation” was verbal, supported by a crib sheet of facts. I managed to cover the bases:

1) Our processing window was after the Los Angeles office finished processing Airbills and before the New York office opened i.e. 1:00 am – 4:00 am PST

2) We shared that window with a ton of other systems 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 was 9:00 am

Even with the aid of equipment, the invoices could not be stuffed into envelopes and metered by 9:00 am. The Post Office would consider our mail First Class on the 2nd day. 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!”

in-line mailer
Very similar to the unit we purchased Thanks to the very nice people at EP Solutions (www.epsolutionscorp.com)

I did some research. I found a Bell & Howell micro-processor-driven in-line mailing machine that could be programmed to take invoices printed “2-up” (side by side), slit them, burst them apart and, working from codes printed on the invoice, organize them into piles and stuff them into envelopes. The machine’s speed 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.

I had my second encounter with Roy the following spring. 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 – Centralized Invoicing would be operational when the mailer was delivered in June. Roy’s reaction to the good news was unexpected:

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

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

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’ve 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 next reaction 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 it 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.


This is a rewrite of an earlier post that many of you didn’t see. I would like to give a shout-out to a few folks who liked the original post in 2013. Coincidently, none of them seem daunted by the impossible.

JoAnna – Anything is possible

JoLynn – Mountain Momma

Nick Allen – Nick W Allen

In 1978, Airborne was located at the base of Queen Anne Hill. Today’s gallery includes photos from a small park on that hill that overlooks the city. These were taken in 2003 and 2005. You can click on any photo to start a slide show.

Happy Labor Day!

70 thoughts on “Labor Day – Lessons

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    1. So true, Pam. So very true. As I grew to understand more about the ways businesses really work, his lesson became more clear and more beneficial. What I really like (in retrospect) is that he spoke directly to me. I’ve met so many others who would have sent that message down the organization and let others claim the “glory” of fixing the problem (which would have been me).

      Liked by 2 people

  1. What can I say, Dan? You are brilliant. You just didn’t realize it until someone socked it out of you. 😉Love the photos. Seattle has always been on my bucket list. The bucket is not changing much but I still have dreams. Never tell an innovative person something can’t be done. ( or perhaps that is just what it takes. 🤔)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Cheryl. I didn’t understand the parameters. He taught me to consider a bigger picture than the one I had been told to look at. He was an excellent leader. A little rough, but he wanted the best and he let us know that. When we gave him the best, he let us know he appreciated it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent choice for Labor Day, Dan. Some meetings have lasting impacts on us. Even when they make us feel like school boy or girl. You had a cool idea to suggest hiring the Cubans who needed to work. And Roy certainly acted like a real boss, remembering of what you has said at a previous meeting.
    During my very first professional interview the woman who would be my boss and the HR woman turned their back to me and spoke about me in the third person when they had finished asking me questions. The fact that I was young and looked even younger came up several times in their conversation. I worried that my age and look would be an obstacle. But I was hired and spent 10 years in this company before moving to the US. They had argued and ultimately the last word I heard from the HR lady was that youth’s enthusiasm was what the company needed. So she also remade the impossible possible for me. Which in the mid 80s was still gutsy. The assumption back then was that a young woman wouldn’t be able to supervise a team of people.
    Happy Labor Day to you, to your family and readers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Evelyne. It’s hard to believe that they would have that conversation with you there, but I’ve seen worse. I had just hoped that what I had seen was an anomaly. Unfortunately, some still doubt that a woman, young or otherwise, can lead a team, especially in my world of technology. I’m glad to hear your experience was a success.

      Like

  3. Hi Dan – well you told it like it could be done and he could see it could be done … so it worked – both times. Always look at other ideas and ways. Early on I didn’t make a decision … I waited for my boss to return – and when he did I was admonished … and told that I could perfectly well have made a decision – which would probably be right … but if it wasn’t it could be rectified … he just said – don’t ever say ‘don’t know’ again – just make the decision, if it’s needed – stood me in good stead, though I do rethink sometimes – but not if it’s important and I always let people know what’s happening and tell them when I’ll get to their request … if I’m busy etc …

    Well done – interesting to read about – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked this Jennie. I didn’t have many encounters with him. A management decision two years into my stay, left me without a job in Seattle. I had the option to work in the field, but for me, still low man, that meant the southeast. I left. When I first write about this, I discovered that Roy had died. He remains an influence in my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I joined my current workplace, a certain registered engineer used to make me feel very inept. He was so stern. He would examine my designs more thoroughly than he did the ones done by my colleagues. He would then call me and give me a lecture about the consequences of “ruining the company’s reputation”. I hated the feeling of ineptness. I hate not knowing stuff. And usually when I’m not sure about anything, I’d rather just keep quiet than blunder. He hated that I couldn’t speak. Later on, I found out that my colleagues were getting away with the same mistakes he was castigating me for.
    But I’m glad he did. Because these days he consults with me. He asks me to approve his designs and if he isn’t sure about anything, he asks me to confirm for him. If myself I’m not sure, he says “Give it a second. I know you are good at this.”
    He made me learn something crucial about electrical engineering. Nobody can really say they are good at it unless they are solving the same problems over and over again. The field changes a lot with the advent of each new technology (which happens too frequently these days). You just have to work hard and keep up.
    Thank you Dan. You made me remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Peter. I’m glad you stepped up to the challenge. We are better when we’re willing to learn. Technology fields, like ours, are so hard to keep up with. Still, it feels good to learn something new and realize that you still can.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, John. My boss took charge of our company when it was about to fail. I had an offer for a different job, but since he is my age, I figured if he was willing to risk staying, I should be. I figured he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he just didn’t know it was impossible. That was 20 years ago. He’s retiring in December – I’m going to miss him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My supervisor is so very old school, which is a shame considering she is younger than me. Nothing, I mean nothing, goes out of our department w/o it going first to her so she can question us, wordsmith it, and, ultimately, have it come out like nothing we suggested in the first place. So, the option is: why think of anything if it is going to be shot down. Roy was a great supervisor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He was, Lois. He also gave me the credit for having the idea. The best advice I ever heard about being a team leader was from one of the consulting partners I worked for – “give credit to your team for success but accept the blame for all problems.” That approach yields way more success than failure.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s interesting how a flippant comment led to a great idea with the Cuban refugees. Your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss had great foresight and/or a creative mind. No idea, especially in a meeting, is too small or meaningless. That’s how the Budweiser frogs and Post-It notes became reality…right? Happy Labor Day, Dan. I hope you are relaxing and making the most of your day off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mary. That flippant remark paid off big time, especially for one refugee, who landed a pretty good job. I’ve been for a walk with Maddie. I’m going to do enough labor to make it feel like I did something and the take some of your mother’s advice. I hope you’re having a nice day.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I saw that you commented in a few photos. I’ll have to check those out from my laptop. That park was always one of my favorite spots, and the Space Needle is also in a great place.

      Those lessons have stuck with me for almost 40 years.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting how our “labors” began. You designing and implementing invoicing systems… Me stuffing the envelopes (elsewhere).
    They said i was the fastest temp they’d ever had. (Of course I was, seeing how fast I could do it was the only challenge i could find. And the perm staff didn’t appreciate it a bit…)
    The owner’s son had a bad attitude and no wonder, I thought, he was the ugliest boy I had ever seen,so I persisted in niceness figuring he must not have a friend in the world. He became more verbally abusive. Finally he stormed out with a nasty insult. A middle aged working there said he thought I had a crush on him. “Oh. I was just being nice to him because he’s so ugly,” shocked young me said without thinking. They didn’t ask me to come back. o_O
    Happy Labor Day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha – that’s a funny story. Sad, in so many ways, but funny. I know all about our-performing the permanent staff. I’m not sure if I wrote about that encounter. I lost a temp job and blew an interview after not being able to control my young mouth/brain relationship.

      Sorry to say I spent much of my career eliminating jobs like that one. Some people still hold a grudge.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice life’s lessons to pass along to those that would like to learn from others. Mentors are important to us. I recall a boss that I considered a mentor early in my career, he was willing to listen to my analysis of a situation then he said, ok you take care of it giving me the responsibility and empowerment. That steered me into my career and later when I worked in another company where he was a general partner on real estate developments I paid him back by working to resolve some major construction defect claims on a project near the home office and recovered a hefty amount for the partners. So the task is to become a mentor to pass on this lesson to others.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for sharing that story again Dan and of course the pics are incredible!! What a great lesson to carry through your career….I had a similar type boss when I first started out and I owe him for thinking outside the boss and not giving up until a solution is in site…

    Skyline has changed in the last 10+ years and is currently undergoing major changes with the infuence of Amazon….cranes constructing highrises all over the north end of downtown…love the night shot!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kirt. I was back out there a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t get back to the park to update these. I was pretty amazed at how much the skyline has changed and how much of the new construction was Amazon related.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Dan. Your early working days very interesting, lessons for all to keep in mind. Have been to Seattle recently, and over the years. More people, more construction (cranes every where). Housing boom, condos on city streets. Traffic congestion. Still it’s a beautiful place, and my family lives around the Seattle area. Happy Lsbor Day! 🌷 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dan what a nice surprise to end my holiday with…. thanks for the shout out!! We all have been faced with the impossible in one form or another, I just happen to believe anything is possible so I just keep looking for the answer in other places…. Happy Labor Day !

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great story. Wonderful example of problem solving with originality.
    I recently read a quote (at the vet’s office, of all places) which read, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Theodore Roosevelt. It spoke to me, and I think it fits here.
    Much of this is relatable: Make this happen, but no, not like that! Take initiative, but run it by me. Be creative, but within my comfort zone. You did a great job with the freedom of thought. You were fortunate to have that kind of supervision. I look back on excellent leadership I’ve worked with, and I wonder if I’ll ever find it again.
    Um, or when, lol cause positivity :)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The leadership their was really good. I’ve been fortunate in my career. I’ve had some duds, but mostly I’ve worked for very good people. My boss is retiring soon. I’m gonna miss him big.

      That’s a great quote by TR. it does fit. Handled differently, he could have really set me back. Instead, he made me get better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s what happens. Tone from the top works when it’s both positive and negative. It’s truly a pleasure to work for a company when the tone from the top is positive, with a genuine desire to treat people well while striving for excellence in service.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m so glad you revealed your true nervousness as a young person. This may reassure those who may be jittery still when called into the manager’s office. I always joke around and say I feel I’m going to the principal’s office at our warehouse. Our work overhead announcement system sounds like the same one Charlie Brown has at his school. “Wah wha wah waa. . .”
    I think the refugees idea to help with the invoices’ time frame is so interesting! Who would have thought it would work out? You think outside the box.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Robin. I used to feel the same way. Maybe because I visited the principal’s office more than once. Roy gets credit for the refugees. Mine was a flippant remark. He saw a possibility.

      Like

  14. i’m sorry I missed this post on the first go-round. It is an excellent story that I could have used to illustrate a variety of worthwhile points back when I was speaking and teaching workshops — with full credit to the author, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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