Atlas Amplifier PDF(3.1 MB)
On the surface, it appears little has changed at the headquarters of Atlas Van Lines in Evansville, Indiana. You see the same buildings and people, working at the same computers and telephones, doing pretty much the same tasks.
But, if you could look below the surface, you would see a profound change. It's been quietly taking shape over the past two years, and in January it was completed with ISO 9001:2000 certification.
While improvement has long been integral to the Atlas quality culture, it has recently taken on renewed vigor. In 2006, recognizing the potential for a significant leap forward, Atlas' executive management team took steps to alter the trajectory of the company's quality evolution. The shift would engage the entire van line organization in an all-out drive to ensure a process for continuous improvement.
"To fulfill our mission of being an industry-leading provider through service and performance, we recognized a need to achieve uniformity in our processes," says Glen Dunkerson, Vice Chairman and COO, Atlas World Group. "From department to department, there were variations in the methods people used in their work. We knew there was a natural correlation between process improvement and ISO methods, so we decided to pursue ISO compliance."
The Atlas team consulted with industry professionals, including members of the American Society for Quality. They were soon convinced to create a position on the organization chart for continuous improvement. "This would be a key role," says Glen. "We knew it was essential to bring in someone with the right qualifications."
Enter Norm Carlson, with over 20 years of experience and credentials that include Six Sigma Black Belt, CQE (Certified Quality Engineer), CQA (Certified Quality Auditor) and Registered Lead Assessor. Norm joined Atlas in the spring of 2006 as Director of Continuous Improvement.
"Our first priority was to identify where we are in our quality evolution and develop a strategy that set forth what our next steps should be," says Norm. "We recognized that the current quality process had served us well and contributed to our success. However, we also realized the market is always changing. Customer expectations continue to rise, and the business environment grows ever more competitive."
In August of 2006, the executive management team ratified the strategy, which identified two major initiatives for the short term. The first was ISO compliance.
We started with the stated goal of compliance because it would give us a base for consistency and allow us to identify and remove variation in our systems," says Glen. "If at the conclusion we also achieved ISO certification, that would be the icing on the cake."
"We understood that it would be nice to have the credential," says Atlas Van Lines President and COO Greg Hoover. "But more important is what that credential represents." Greg draws an analogy to exercise. "You don't go to the gym just to say you can bench press 200 pounds. You do it because it makes you healthier. That's the whole point of our effort. We follow a regimen, and we're in shape."
"One reason McDonald's is so successful, no matter where you go, you have a reasonable expectation of what you will get," says Norm. "Sure, there are minor differences. But you get essentially the same product and service and taste, unit to unit."
Disney offers another prime example. "My Disney vacation was not the least expensive I've ever taken," says Norm. "But I got every dime's worth. And I would gladly go back."
While Atlas Van Lines serves neither burgers nor theme park vacations, the case for consistency is just as relevant.
"We want our customers to count on us for service with the highest level of professionalism, at a price that is competitive and fair," says Norm. "If their experience with Atlas leaves them with a preference for us the next time they are in the market, we have achieved our goals."
With a working strategy document in hand, Atlas executives engaged a steering committee to shepherd the process throughout the organization. This team comprised individuals who represented a cross-section of the company. After a week of training in the standard Atlas would adopt, they began documenting work processes in each department.
"Whether or not we would achieve certification, our strategy was to follow the ISO model," says Norm, who served on the steering committee. "We saw the best way to approach our task was an all-out effort to achieve certification. By pursuing certification and employing a third party registrar, we would have an objective set of eyes assessing us against the ISO model, which might see things we missed."On February 19, Atlas employees celebrated their accomplishment in festivities at headquarters.
"Our job was to get the thoughts of everyone whose job function affects customer service, which is essentially everybody in the organization," says steering committee member Jim DePillo, Senior Director of Logistics Services. Jim is also part of the internal auditing team that will play an ongoing role and continually review processes to look for ways to improve.
Jim says committee members developed flow charts and process maps, documenting the processes and procedures of the myriad job functions that affect customer service. Because Atlas already operated under many of the concepts of the ISO standard, there was a solid basis to work from and build on.
"We would meet as a committee a couple of times a month, and in smaller groups as needed to help each other out and share ideas," says Jim. "It was a big endeavor, and it touched pretty much every area of the organization. Everyone here, in some way, is involved in serving customers."
Jim sees several benefits to the standardization process, including the development of metrics to better measure and evaluate performance and the enhanced understanding employees gained about what Atlas stands for and strives for.
"Perhaps best of all, this effort provided everyone with more awareness of how our actions affect the customer," says Jim. "After all, the number one quality principle is a customer focus."
A key component of ISO compliance is document control. Steering committee member Lisa Fryer rose to this challenge as Document Control Coordinator, now her fulltime role.
"The standards specify that documents required by our quality management system be controlled," says Lisa. "My job is to ensure the most current versions are in place, with all the necessary approvals. You could say I'm the document gatekeeper."
The Atlas system uses an application called Master Control and houses approximately 1600 different documents, including forms, procedures, training manuals, etc. Lisa explains that each document has an author and an owner, who may or may not be the same individual. Before a document becomes approved, it goes through an assigned "route," whereby designated people read and comment. Comments go to the author, who makes revisions, if needed, and resubmits the document. Ultimately, the process arrives at an approved document.
"From a training perspective, especially for new hires, our system is ideal," says Lisa. "It provides an excellent tool for training efficiencies and removes any doubt about whether you are using the most current information."
On the second Monday in October 2007, Atlas employees entered the final stretch in the drive toward compliance by donning black t-shirts and jeans for "Let's Rock," a day of awareness and motivation. The event kicked off a three-month sprint to the finish line marked by internal auditing and tweaking in preparation for the third-party registrar. The effort culminated on January 17 with the successful certification of Atlas Van Lines as an ISO 9001 compliant company.
Perhaps the best way to think of process management is as a journey rather than a destination. The work goes on every day, and Atlas' internal auditors examine business systems regularly to assure work processes are consistently executed and to identify opportunities to improve them.
"We now have a system of checks and balances to make sure we do what we say we will," says Norm. "We are internally self-auditing to remain compliant. We make improvements by opportunity instead of defect."
So, what's next? As noted earlier, the strategy for process management holds another objective for the near term.
"The next step is to use the ISO model to provide a solid base from which we can continue to improve. We'll be better able to maximize improvement tools like Six Sigma and lean methods." says Glen. "After that, there will be another step. Atlas will never stop taking steps to improve the quality of what we do for our customers."
A commitment to quality has long been intrinsic to the Atlas culture. One of the most visible watermarks is the prestigious Milton M. Hill Quality Award, established in 1996 to recognize agents who are exemplars of performance. The award is named in honor of the late Mr. Hill, an Atlas board member who dedicated much of his professional energies to the furtherance of quality.
Don Hill, President and COO of Alexander's Mobility Services (0207), has helped his company build on his father's legacy.
"Our company achieved ISO certification in 1997," says Don. "While we initially saw the value of the credential for conveying our quality commitment, what we soon learned is that it made us a much better company. In the same way, Atlas' achievement testifies to a commitment to customers. This is the most important reason for pursuing ISO certification."
"I've always felt that Atlas and its agents I have worked with are committed to quality," says Kathy Curtis, Senior Manager, Global Relocation and Immigration with Cisco Systems (also an ISO-certified company). "I view ISO certification as a further indication of their quality commitment – a formal validation of what I have found through my own experience."
ISO 9000 is an international quality standard for assuring consistent service to customers. The Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization first published it in 1987. "ISO" is derived from the Greek word, isos, which means, "equal" or "consistent."
ISO 9000 establishes a universally recognized means by which companies can manage their processes for continuous improvement.
The market favors ISO compliant organizations as customers increasingly see the value of working with such firms.
Among the benefits of ISO 9000 are improved efficiency, reduced costs, enhanced competitiveness, greater customer satisfaction, and a solid foundation for future initiatives.
Research among ISO 9000-certified companies showed:
"Atlas' success with ISO certification is largely due to the efforts of the people on the steering team," says Director of Continuous Improvement Norm Carlson. "From the start, these folks went above and beyond their normal duties."
Team members represented every functional area of the company and brought valued perspectives about every aspect of Atlas' business. As they embarked on their mission, they spent a week under Norm's tutelage, becoming versed in the fine points of the ISO standard and the steps required to ascertain compliance.
"I couldn't be everywhere, and these people were like my arms wherever they were needed in the organization," says Norm. "They were the experts. They assisted department heads, answered questions, and were essentially the 'get-it-done' people. What we did as a company couldn't have been accomplished without them."
|Front Row:||Back Row:|
|Norm Carlson Director of Continuous Improvement||Lisa Weis Financial Services|
|Lisa Fryer Process Management||Kenny McMichael Information Technology|
|Barb Sinnett Customer Service||Jo Hein Agency Services/Government Business|
|Sossity Lalemen Corporate Accounting||Mike Francis STG Operations|
|Rick Kirby Safety/Terminal||J. J. Mohr Information Technology|
|Quin Isaac RSG Contract Business||Jim DePillo Logistics 3rd Party|
|Celia Mirick Customer Service||Dan Worstell Information Technology|
|Tony Catanese RSG Operations||Mark Haller STG Sales|
|Pam Cook Human Resources||Sunny Williams RSG Operations|
|Stacie Banks Corporate Accounting/Financial Services||
Inset: Monte Vanover Terminal Services