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How a $5 million investment in quality improvements is paying off for Dobbs International Services.

Any company that announces it's going to be the quality leader before the process has begun has no notion of what achieving true quality really entails. Just ask Dobbs International Services in Memphis. Its quality improvement process took five years and a $5 million investment before really starting to show results. And, any Dobbs employee will agree that achieving true quality can be an excruciating process.

For five years, the company kept quiet about what it was trying to do. "We were always a good company, but with the process, we were trying to draw a level of individual responsibility from our employees that was unprecedented in our history," says George Alvord, vice president of marketing and sales. "Quite frankly, we were never sure it was going to work."

But across the desk comes chart after chart proving that quality is improving:

* Between 1988 and 1992, customer complaints have dropped from one in every 62 flights to one in every 179 flights--on average, a 280% improvement.

* The number of times a truck hits a plane--probably the costliest mistake in airline feeding--has dropped by almost 50% in four years.

* The number of times late meal service has delayed a flight has been cut in half over the past four years. Today, only one in every 11,221 flights is delayed for this reason.

* Workplace injuries have decreased from one in every 9,000 work hours in 1989 to one in every 20,000 work hours in 1991. Insurance costs are down as a result.

* And four years ago, the yearly employee turnover rate was 77.7%. In 1991, the rate hit 31.5%--low by any industry's measure, outstanding for food service's.

The last statistic is the most telling when measuring Dobbs' success in its quest for quality. The introduction of employee teams in 1986 turned the cliche of empowerment into a practice.

Blasting Barriers

"For 47 years, we'd been operating in a traditional departmental manner, with turfs defined and hierarchies in place," says Gordon Anderson, vice president of operations. "All of a sudden, we were asking people from different yet interrelated departments to form teams and work out job solutions and improvements." In some cases, these departments had little communication in the past, even though they relied on each other in their functions. One department's manner of executing a task might have caused extra work in another department, but neither would talk with the other to work out a new plan. "All that miscommunication is eliminated by these teams," says Anderson.

For a few managers, the loss of "authority" that ensued with teams was too hard an adjustment to make; several left the company as a result. "This team management style is not to everyone's taste--you have to forget the concept of turf, and that can be very difficult," says Anderson.

True Teamwork

Dobbs formed more than 30 teams during the first several years of the process. The teams turned the company into what one administrator calls "acronym city." There's CAST (Customer Awareness Satisfaction Team), formed to improve relations between Dobbs and airline employees; PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In Daily Efforts team), to reduce the incidence of workplace injuries; and TAP (Training and Productivity improvement). There's even TW (Team Work team), formed to improve, motivate, promote, and celebrate teams, as well as RAP (Recognition Awards Program) to reward improvement efforts.

The teams have specific goals to achieve, such as researching, purchasing, and implementing a new payroll system (one team's goal). In addition, each employee and team is encouraged to come up with IAIs (Improvement Action Ideas). For example, an engineer in one of the kitchens came up with an idea for a lettuce aerator, a $20 piece of hole-punched pipe that was custom-made to fit around the base of produce sinks. The pipe agitates water around lettuce, loosening any foreign objects. Complaints of objects found in salads dropped from about 20 per month to one or two. Now, all 52 kitchens have the aerators.

The PRIDE team (workplace injury prevention) got the idea for color-coded armbands from the Indianapolis 500, where new drivers wear black Xs on their helmets. Green armbands indicate that an employee is new and in need of extra safety training.

Willie Blackwell, former hot foods manager in the Atlanta regional office, volunteered on the board of Georgia's Literacy Coalition. He received permission to begin a literacy program in the Atlanta kitchen. Sherry Cox, manager of corporate relations and member of the community relations team, thought the program would be ideal for the entire system. Today, Blackwell is corporate literacy coordinator, and by 1995, all 52 kitchens will have a literacy program.

"All of our employees realize that they have a say about how this company is run," says Bob Teutsch, vice president and legal counsel. "When an idea comes through, we acknowledge it within 24 hours and respond to it within 72." Hundreds of ideas have come through the system since 1987.

Some of the teams are permanent; others are dissolved once a goal is reached. For example, CABS, the Computerized Airline Bulletin Systems team, was formed in 1987 to improve the method by which Dobbs' 52 kitchens received pricing updates.

"We used to send out 52 price bulletins by mail," says Donna Coles, director of pricing services. Each kitchen would then have to key the list into its local computer. Not only were input mistakes made, but the delay in receiving new prices by mail--days after prices were effective--forced kitchens to retrobill customers.

Coles' team worked with the company's Management Information Systems department to create bulletin software. Today, on the day prices are updated, each kitchen gets the information over the computer. Not only is accuracy intact, but the information is immediate, eliminating the need for retrobilling. This innovation saved Dobbs 150,000 labor hours between March 1988 and October 1990. And, Dobbs' airline customers are more than grateful for the accuracy and immediacy of the billing. CABS was dissolved, but now CABS II has been formed to further improve customer billing.

The Ripple Effect

One of the most important results of Dobbs' Quality Improvement Process was the creation of SPIRIT: Supplier Partnership Involvement Resource Improvement Team. SPIRIT was formed because, in order for Dobbs to improve its quality, any company that supplies Dobbs with goods and services must be willing to improve its quality as well. "For example, our kitchen tray assemblers cannot achieve their goal of complaint-free work if the supplier delivers the wrong supplies," says Ken Miller, director of purchasing. "And by the same token, our suppliers can't be expected to get orders 100% correct if we are late, sloppy, or unclear with our orders."

Currently, 25 suppliers have formed teams with Dobbs employees, including everyone from the company's major food distributors to IBM, which provides computer services. Even Dobbs' uniform supplier is involved. As a result of SPIRIT, quality has taken on a ripple effect.

One improvement that resulted was common-item coding wherein suppliers and Dobbs agreed to code items alike. Previously, they worked off their own systems, necessitating a "translation" of codes each time supplies were ordered and delivered. Today, the incidence of miss-picks (pulling the wrong item off the shelf) is down 50%.

Dobbs also has partnerships with its airline customers. Dobbs asked the airlines to rate the importance of certain services and then to rate Dobbs on its execution. All kinds of changes ensued. Dobbs started to call drivers "customer service representatives," gave them cards, and worked out a new training format for airline service. Today, rather than taking reps for granted as mere delivery people, airline attendants rely on them completely because they provide invaluable services, such as staying on board to make final checks.

A Way of Life

Fred Martin, president, took his senior staff to quality guru Phil Crosby's Quality College in Winter Park, Fla., back in 1986. The group came back fired up but realistic.

"The premise was simple," says Wayne Shannon, vice president, quality improvement process. "Do it right the first time and the cost of your goods and services goes down while profitability goes up." But, getting 7,500 employees to buy in was another matter.

Six years later, Dobbs is succeeding. It has received numerous awards from Northwest and British Airways, parent company Dial Corp., the USDA, and Onboard Services Magazine, as well as commendations from American, United, Swissair, Delta, many of its suppliers, and various community organizations. Many times, awards go to individual Dobbs employees.

But more important than awards is the pride one senses at Dobbs--the pursuit of quality literally is a way of life. "You can do something for so long because it's good for you," says Teutsch. "But to keep it going, you have to like it." Dobbs employees do.

"We learned two terrible things about the quality-improvement process," says Shannon. "You can't delegate it, and, once it's started, you can never stop."

Ms. Lorenzini is on the editorial staff of Restaurants and Institutions magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1992 University of Memphis
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Dobbs International Services Inc.
Author:Lorenzini, Beth
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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