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!”
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!