Like most asset-heavy operations, Coates Hire is a ‘capital intensive’ business. It means running lean internal structures and using a small army of external partners each year. In my part of the business alone, Transport Logistics, we currently work with around 350 external transport providers. We also utilise another group of specialist providers who are experts in their chosen fields such as engineering, technology, E-Learning, logistics legislation, etc.
While this approach delivers financial advantages, it also brings its share of operational challenges. With so many moving parts how do you keep everyone on the same page?
After three years in my current role, it’s still a delicate balance between allowing our business partners the freedom they need to ‘do their thing’, whilst also ensuring they’re a collaborative player who buys into the bigger picture. With politics and conflicts often simmering just beneath the surface, you need to be quite strategic about knowing when to bring your partners together, and when to keep them apart. Some of our projects have been far more successful than others!
Getting it wrong
About two years ago, we set about developing a new e-learning application for our people. Tired of staid PowerPoint presentations, the brief was to create something that would really inspire the Coates Hire team. The great news is, we achieved that with a fantastic interactive 3D e-learning program. The bad news is, no-one could actually use it due to bandwidth and Learning Management System compatibility issues. I’d decided not to bring our external and internal people together during the initial stages of the project – and it proved a big mistake. The right questions simply weren’t asked and it left us with an expensive problem that needed to be fixed, rather than a solution that was ready to be used. It was a hard lesson learned.
Getting it right
Fortunately, we’re getting much better at bringing our partners together. One of the best examples is a new, innovative truck loading system we’re currently trialling that involves technical partners on both sides of the Pacific, with the technology developer based in Canada. We’re also working with a specialist truck bodybuilder in Sydney as well as a cab chassis manufacturer in Melbourne. The project has been in development for around a year, and it’s gone very smoothly. Each party understands what we’re trying to achieve and they’ve been working really well together to deliver.
Educate & involve
What has all this taught me? For starters, it’s crucial to invest the time to explain things clearly to all of our partners from the outset. Rather than telling them what we’re doing and expecting them to fall into line, it’s about involving them in the process so they understand why we’re doing it (and ideally how it can help them too). Often what’s rolling around in your head will morph into something a little different through these conversations, to something even better.
Choose the right partners
It’s very important to ask the right questions and speak to the right people. Do your research. Who are the most relevant experts? Who’s the best fit for attitude and culture? Who’s likely to work most effectively with your other project partners? When you’ve found the answer, go a step further. Get them out of the office and immerse them in your business. Let them speak with your people and/or customers. Help them understand the challenges, first-hand.
Clarity now, focus later
Another way to short-circuit potential problems is to clearly define the scope and responsibilities of every project, well before the heavy lifting begins. I find this is especially important when I don’t have the time to monitor every step of the process myself. Sure, there will still be disagreements, but the project goalposts are clear for all to see – and you don’t end up with solutions that are three paddocks away from where you need to be!
We’re certainly still refining our approach. But after a few years, I think we’ve reached a point where we have a much better handle on how to engage our external partners to ensure they’re working effectively together. Long may it continue.
How well are your external business partners working together? Please share your thoughts below.
By Adam Welch
Group Manager - Transport Logistics