View from the Edge

We Can't Do That! ...Or Can We?

In this issue, CarriersEdge co-founder Mark Murrell revisits a hit TV show to illustrate the importance of challenging conventional wisdom.

"Don't tell me what I can't do!"
~ John Locke, Lost

For those who don't remember, or never watched it, John Locke was a character on the TV show Lost. Locke was in a wheelchair but still wanted to engage in a variety of activities (including a walkabout in Australia) and was particularly unimpressed every time someone told him he couldn't. "Don't tell me what I can't do!" was his impassioned retort. Locke's determination paid off when he arrived on the magic island and regained the ability to walk (I don't think I'm spoiling anything here, since the show ended in 2010). The phrase became something of a recurring theme on the show, and has become its own Internet meme as well.

Every year when we undertake the evaluation of the Best Fleets to Drive For, I'm reminded of Locke and his steadfast refusal to hear about the things he couldn't do.

We can, and we can't

A few weeks ago we recognized this year's Top 20 Best Fleets to Drive For on stage at the Truckload Carriers Association Annual Convention, after spending several months conducting interviews, compiling data, and tabulating scores to determine the winners. This year, as in each year before, we saw a crop of fleets that face the industry's challenges with a range of innovative approaches and creative solutions.

We also saw, as we do every year, a good number of fleets that are stuck in the trap of "we can't-ism". Yes, that's a phrase I just made up, but it nicely sums up the litany of excuses we hear about why fleets can't do one thing or another.

As we go through the evaluation, we ask fleets a lot of questions, in a lot of different areas, and often we're asking questions about things they haven't really thought much about before. Unsurprisingly, they may not be doing much in those areas. That's perfectly fine - part of the value of the Best Fleets program is looking at different things, in different ways, to continually improve the business. Sometimes fleets will recognize that a question is probing an area they haven't considered before, and they'll start thinking about what to do about it.

Other times, however, fleets will explain why they couldn't possibly be expected to do it, insinuating that we really shouldn't be asking about it in the first place. I know these fleets are feeling self-conscious and it's a natural instinct to fall back on explaining "how trucking works". However, we've been doing this for 10 years now and we have a pretty good idea of what trucking companies can and can't do, so that doesn't help their cause.

It also doesn't help their business.

Short term gain, long term pain

In the grand scheme of things, losing a few points here and there in the Best Fleets program probably isn't a big deal, but there's a larger issue. These fleets are stuck in a particular way of thinking that will end up being a huge disadvantage as time goes on.

The reason for that is simple: for everything they claim they can't do, I can point to fleets who are doing it, and having success with it:

Owner-op fleets can't provide training to their contractors without jeopardizing their independent status? I can think of a half dozen pure contractor fleets that are doing that right now, and making it work.

Can't have driver meetings because drivers are spread out across the country? Plenty of fleets are getting around that one too.

Can't have any significant numbers of women drivers, because "women don't do flatbed"? Tell that to the flatbed fleets with 10%, 20%, or 30% women drivers.

Because of the way the Best Fleets evaluation works, we interview multiple different companies in quick succession and I often interview a "we can't" fleet right before or right after a "look at us doing it" fleet. And every time that happens, I'm reminded of John Locke and his refusal to accept his limitations.

The trucking industry faces a lot of challenges, and a lot of those challenges are shared by every fleet operating in comparable circumstances. Every contractor fleet needs to protect their independent status. Every OTR fleet needs to deal with drivers spread out across the country. Every flatbed fleet needs to find people that are willing and able to do the work.

Some fleets back down in the face of those challenges, while other fleets face them head on. The fleets that back down probably have simpler operations and less hassles on a daily basis, but the fleets that face the challenges are building long term strength that will make them unstoppable in the future. They'll be better positioned to attract and keep the best drivers, have operational advantages that lower their costs and increase their margins, and they'll have a culture that's used to attacking challenges and overcoming them. That's a pretty tough combination to beat, so they're going to dominate in their segments.

It's easy get caught up in the things you can't do, but breaking out of that mindset can open up a lot of opportunity and competitive advantage. So, the next time you find yourself thinking about why you can't do something, channel the spirit of John Locke and fight back against the adversity: "Don't tell me what I can't do!"

View from the Edge is a periodic review of best practices in risk management, driver development, and technology for the trucking industry, produced by CarriersEdge.

CarriersEdge provides interactive online driver training for the North American trucking industry. A comprehensive library of safety and compliance courses is supplemented with extensive content creation and customization options, full featured survey tools, detailed management reports, and the industry's first dedicated mobile app for driver training.

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