Transporting students to and from school is, at best, an imperfect science. The variables that come into play compel so many adjustments and quick decisions on the part of drivers, aides, dispatchers, mechanics and supervisors that the daily exercise of moving students suggests improvisational theater more than a coordinated ballet.
Actually, although you might wince at the comparison, the daily routine is comparable to a military battle, with troops deployed in synchronized fashion to multiple destinations. As such, the transportation manager is the equivalent of the general. The main difference is that generals are decorated for battles won, while transportation managers are recognized by their superiors only when things go astray.
And as much as transportation managers would give praise to their respective staffs for battles well fought, the managers are the ones who run the show and make things happen. Without a sound battle plan, the skills and talents of the ablest soldiers are wasted. As Napoleon put it, "I would rather have an army of rabbits led by a lion than an army of lions led by a rabbit."
It starts at the top
I'm belaboring these military metaphors for a reason: The people who have the greatest influence in the performance of any operation are the commanders. For that reason, their job is the loneliest and often the least understood.
What I've found in reviewing the profiles of the Great Fleets Across America (in the feature section of this issue) is that transportation managers are everyone except themselves as playing a key role in the operation. And I'm not talking only about this year's Great Fleets. We've published profiles of exemplary fleets in each state for four years now, and it's a consistent finding: transportation supervisors rarely talk about their own contributions.
A superb transportation program doesn't happen by accident. It's the product of a mission statement that's understood by every part of the organization. Whether they're transporting children safely to and from school or manufacturing a golf club, all employees must understand their role in the process and be held accountable for fulfilling that role. The responsibility for seeing that this happens is the manager's.
Good managers seek to optimize this process by seeking input from their charges. This not only provides the manager with a broader perspective of the strengths and weaknesses of the operation but also helps to empower the employees. Drivers, aides, mechanics — all of these people must be made to feel like they are important to the success of the operation. Empowerment doesn't guarantee this vested interest, but it's a good start.
Good people and a good system
Good managers also set up good systems. Success comes from talented, well-trained people all working in coordination, but they need to have a system to work within. The best transportation programs have good people, but also have superior systems. With the high rate of turnover among drivers in the industry, it's essential that hiring, training and retention programs are constructed with a wide base.
Finally, good managers are not dogmatic. If a long-held belief is undermined by a series of incidents that suggest this belief is invalid, they can recalibrate their sights and change direction. They also understand the importance of occasionally using intuition to solve problems. They listen to that feeling in their gut, even when the superintendent or school board is lobbying for the alternative.
Behind every great fleet is a great manager, although they might argue that point.