Of Sacred Cows and Left-Hand Turns

Dec 26, 2010 4 Comments by

What myth is blocking your team from realizing breakthrough innovation?

The famous brown trucks of UPS deliver packages in over 200 countries worldwide.

This month’s issue of Fortune magazine contains an interesting interview with Bob Stoffel, a Senior Vice President of UPS. One of the most fascinating things he discusses in the interview is the now-famous no-left-turn rule that all UPS drivers follow.

Here’s how it works: UPS delivery drivers are not allowed to make left-hand turns! If a specific delivery calls for a route that includes a left-hand turn, they move the package to another truck that’s planning to pass that address by going in the opposite direction so the package can be delivered using only right-hand turns. At first glance this restriction may sound like a wildly unproductive rule – but in fact the exact opposite situation is true!

Stoffel’s reasoning for the restriction is grounded in the following facts:

  • Waiting to make left-hand turns wastes time and fuel – especially in urban settings where gridlock is rampant and trucks sit in place idling.
  • Left-hand turns are a huge source of car accidents, so there’s an unnecessary safety risk to making them.
  • Right-turn-only routing cut 20 million miles from UPS routes last year.
  • Saving all those delivery miles reduced CO2 emissions by 20,000 tons.
  • Using these innovative techniques, UPS actually delivered 350,000 MORE packages per day last year while driving 53,000 FEWER miles!
  • So far they’ve reduced delivery miles by 120,000 using right-turn-only routing software (the routing software itself has been a ground-breaking innovation for UPS – but that’s another article…)

Lesson Learned: Consider even the most startling of innovations as having potential value to your team and your organization.  Even if they don’t appear to make sense on the surface, they might prove to be worthwhile. Here’s a link to a video interview where Stoffel talks about it: <Fortune UPS Interview>

It was on MythBusters, so it MUST be true! UPS hasn’t been alone in studying this type of innovation. As part of episode 145 called “Waterslide Wipeout”, (the title of which has nothing to do with innovation or UPS… I hope?), a team of crack engineers from the hit television series Mythbusters verified the logic and the math behind Stoffel’s left-hand van turn ban.

Most of the "research subjects" on this show are eventually destroyed in massive explosions - but thankfully Adam and Jamie didn't destroy any big brown UPS trucks during the filming of the episode on left turns that we reference here.

They drove routes with left turns (and waiting) and they drove routes with only right turns.  They tested their theory by delivering packages around the streets of San Fransisco and here’s the way their results were summarized:

Driving a route taking only right turns instead of left turns is more fuel efficient than driving normally, because the vehicle uses up more gas idling while waiting for traffic to clear on a left turn than taking three right turns. Result: Confirmed

So if Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have proven the right-turn-only innovation to be sound, it must be so.  Lesson Learned: independently test and verify the expected results of your innovations.

Real + Good = Real Good: So the breakthrough innovation is grounded in fact and it’s producing solid business results. How did UPS come up with the idea and how were the people who thought of it allowed to turn their good idea into a corporate policy that resulted in a uniform change to driver behavior? UPS has a strong history of innovation that generates ideas and follows through on them.  While I don’t know the specifics of the UPS innovation cycle, I would like to offer a few suggestions for how your team can make the most of their good ideas:

1. Allow Innovation: Make it safe to brainstorm. Allow ample opportunities for process thinking as a part of your employees’ regular day.  In the case of UPS – they may allow drivers to offer feedback on how realistic a given computer-generated route turns out to be in real life. That experience may result in adjusting the assumptions coded into the software.

2. Enable Innovation: Give teams and individuals a place to take those ideas. Consider a website that’s open to all employees where they can jot down their innovative ideas and “hitchhike” off of the ideas of others. Consider an anonymous submission channel as well. Some innovations may reflect on the efficiency of a given team or even individual – so often-times employees feel safer if they are given a way to share their idea without potentially pointing a finger at a person as being inefficient.

3. Lift the Ban on Creativity: Don’t shut down the creative process – even if some of the ideas sound ridiculous at first. Establish clear ground rules about what you’ll do with ALL ideas – even the silly ones. Sometimes an individual idea doesn’t look like it will work – but when you combine it with several others, they start to have real potential. Encourage people to think of things in ways they have never considered. Most of all; don’t just shut down an idea because it sounds implausible at first.

4. We Can Work It Out: As the brilliant Beatles tune implores us: “Try to see it my way… Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong…” Make it someone’s job to test the ideas – even the ones that sound impractical on the surface may have an ounce of real benefit at their core.  Have the team test the innovation and see if they can make some part of it work.

5. Give People Credit: Report back to the folks who had the original idea – this reinforcement alone will give them fuel to keep generating new ideas.  Some companies reward ideas with cash, others with recognition.  I’d encourage you to consider a little bit of both, but at all costs – don’t ignore them or the good ideas will quickly dry up.

Summary: UPS took on a common misconception that the best delivery routes would always involve both right and left-hand turns and proved their innovation to be good for business.  By fully integrating this idea into their daily delivery processes, UPS realized huge benefits which allowed them to better compete in the highly-optimized global package shipping industry.  Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from Big Brown about turning ideas into real innovations.


Question for Chatter:

  1. What innovations have you seen within your organization that started with a ground-level good idea?
  2. What other ways can we generate good ideas and bring them to fruition?
  3. What form of rewards and/or recognition have you seen work to encourage employee innovation?

Required Disclaimer: I don’t work for – or with – the folks at Fortune magazine and they don’t pay me to mention them.  Same for Adam and Jamie at Mythbusters. I don’t work for or with them either, but I sure wish I did!   : o )  -S

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

4 Responses to “Of Sacred Cows and Left-Hand Turns”

  1. Tweets that mention Of Sacred Cows and Left-Hand Turns | theBigRocks of Change -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Kuphal, Narek Alaverdyan. Narek Alaverdyan said: see you UPS drivers do not do LEFT turns at all! amazing http://thebigrocks.com/sacred-cows-left-hand-turns/ […]

  2. stanley cahn says:

    There was a book published years ago called “No Left Turns”. It was an unauthorized biography of J. Edgar Hoover, who instructed his drivers to map out a route for his limo that included no left turns. It was considered an aberration then. Thus the title.

  3. Andrew Stevens says:

    A potential addition to the article that firms fail to realize when fostering inovation is it takes *resources*. In recent hard-time economic years firms are running fairly lean in order to decrease costs thereby increasing productivity. However, it is important that firms do not cut themselves so lean that there is not capacity available, in terms of labor, to innovate ideas from conception to realization. In short, firms cannot realize innovation without sufficient resources available. This does not mean a specific R&D department, but allowing time each day for employees, as the article describes, to INNOVATE! :)

  4. Larry Schwartz says:

    An excellent article, thanks for pointing it out to us.

    Another place to find innovative ideas is to “steal” them from other areas/disciplines that have unintentional similarities. Employing a right turn only rule has been taught to chauffers as part of executive protection training for years. The reason, it cuts down on accidents and avoids having the vehicle sitting in one spot (as an easy target) for extended periods of time.

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