The Winner's Circle

You could hardly miss the contingent from Con-way Freight at the 2006 SuperTech event. Not only did the LTL shipper have eight technicians competing in the event, they had an additional group of family members and corporate officers in attendance, all wearing Con-way shirts and cheering on their team.

We recently talked with Con-way Freight’s director of maintenance, Mike Grima, about his company’s experience at SuperTech.

Fleet Maintenance: Can you give me some background on Con-way?

Mike Grima: We are an LTL fleet for hire. There are three units under one big umbrella: Central in Ann Arbor covers the central states, Southern in Dallas covers the south and southeast, and Western in California covers the western states. Central has over 400 technicians, Southern has 158 and Western has 111.

FM: Was Con-way involved in the first SuperTech competition in 2005?

MG: No, last year was our first year. We are members of the ATA and TMC, and so we got their communications. We wanted to get our mechanics some recognition; we wanted to give them the chance to compete on a larger scale than they can internally. We thought SuperTech would not only be a good opportunity for that, but that it would also build their confidence and self-esteem.

FM: Do you have your own in-house corporate technician competition?

MG: We do. We began the competition here at Con-way Central, and began dovetailing it with our annual drivers’ competition. We have them compete that same weekend, once a year. The three different business units do their competitions separately, but for Central we do ours the first weekend in August.

FM: Do all your SuperTech competitors come from Central?

MG: We divvy it up; this year we’ll have two entrants from each business unit entered in SuperTech. They’ll be selected through each of the business units’ own competitions.

FM: How many technicians enter the competitions?

MG: We have quite a few people test for it. We offer a written test as a pre-qualifier. You have to have a year of safe working; no accidents or injuries. Then we give them a written test, and the highest scoring person out of each maintenance region qualifies. Then we take the next highest scorers out of any region, in any order, up to a limit of 14 people. We have nine maintenance regions, and we have 14 operations regions.

FM: Who prepares the written test?

MG: It’s a combination of our field personnel and myself and the other components. We all contribute to that test and make is as broad as possible, so as to not favor any one business unit. And we rotate: we actually have three tests, that contain for all intents and purposes the same information, and we rotate the tests within the organization, so that the guys in the first group that perhaps compete in the spring have the same chance as the guys who compete in August, and word doesn’t get out as to what was on that test.

FM: How tough do you make the questions?

MG: The questions deal with things that the technician might encounter on any given day, and then I take the test results and score them, and see how we did as a group—what were we good at, what were we bad at. Then we can concentrate our development; we use that as a tool to develop and strengthen our shops, because it’s a reflection of ho well-trained our people are. So, if you have any one particular category that they don’t score well in as a group, then we know we have to concentrate our efforts in that area to improve it.

FM: What do you test the technicians on?

MG: We test them on daily functions, what they’re expected to do in the shop. For example, what are the torque sequences on a wheel? What’s the proper torque setting on an axle? What are the proper tire pressures? What are the proper pull points? We try to mimic what the ASE does; we’ll have engine or electrical or air conditioning questions. Our expectation of our journeyman mechanics is that they can repair whatever rolls in the door. We don’t have them classified by engine, brakes, transmissions—whatever you draw today, that’s your job for today.

FM: What sorts of prizes and incentives do you award the winners?

MG: We have a first, second and third place in our internal competition. They get an all-expense paid trip to the competition, as well as their spouse, for the weekend. The winners get a personalized watch, and the first and second place winners go on and we cover all expenses for them to compete in the TMC SuperTech competition.

FM: Does your corporate competition prepare your technicians for SuperTech?

MG: I believe so. We do our competition on live vehicles. My field managers and I will sit down, we’ll develop several problems, we’ll ‘bug’ the trucks with those problems, we’ll test them and validate that they will be dysfunctional on the unit. Then we bring the competitors in—they have all the tools, all the diagrams, all the information they need to perform that task. And we give it to them is a way they would get it in the real world: the driver walks in with a complaint form that says, ‘Air conditioning doesn’t work,’ or ‘The truck doesn’t pull properly,’ and it’s up to them to repair it just as they would if they had gotten that information from the driver. Then we watch their routine, and they are scored on points for completing tasks, and they are also expected to complete the paperwork; if they don’t complete the paperwork correctly, they lose points for that. So it’s an all-inclusive test, just like it would be on the job.

FM: How did you assemble your team for last year’s SuperTech competition? There was a whole crowd wearing Con-way shirts!

MG: You’re referring to the staff and family members who attended. It was a combination of the component directors and our parent company. The field directors put the program together with regard to who would attend. We got the approvals as required, and went there to support our mechanics, to take photographs, and to encourage family members to participate, and it turned out to be a very positive event for everybody.

FM: SuperTech starts with a written exam, and only the technicians who pass that exam move on to the hands-on competition. Did all of your technicians pass the exam and get into the final round?

MG: Out of all the competitors, only one didn’t make it to the actual hands-on test. But he absolutely had a great time, and then he was able to go on and cheer his teammates.

FM: When the technicians got back to work after SuperTech, did you notice any difference in their job performance?

MG: I can’t say it changed their work habits or their skill levels, but it certainly put a focus in areas where we needed improvement, and how to go about getting that information. It also created a very strong internal pride with the other mechanics, when they learned about what happened when the competitors came back and spoke of how well it went, and what a good experience it was for them.

FM: Did that stir up more interest in SuperTech this year?

MG: I believe it did. We had a lot of people try out this year. And it’s hard limiting it to just the two per business unit when you have that many mechanics.

FM: For you to be able to put together such a big group of SuperTech competitors, you must have a great training program. What’s your secret?

MG: We have a lot of good vendor support, where the vendors will come in and educate upon request. In Central, we take it a step further. We’ve built a training room where we bring in mechanics and give them training in air conditioning, in electrical, in diagnostics and repair. In fact, we’ve got a class going on right now. And, we’ll also do a traveling road show, where I’ll go around where mechanics are requesting assistance for air conditioning, for example—this time of year that’s a real hot topic. We’ll go and offer training on their site, refresher course type of information, to help them pass the ASE test and to be more proficient at what they do. We also offer a tuition reimbursement program, where the mechanic can get addition training on their own, and we’ll cover the cost. It’s a benefit you don’t see very often.

FM: None of your guys won any of the major awards at SuperTech last year. Are they that much more motivated to succeed this year?

MG: You betcha! They are, and we’re all looking forward to it.

FM: What kind of feedback did you get from the technicians after last year’s SuperTech?

MG: Universally, we had nothing but positive comments, about how well-organized the event was, how the TMC had it arranged, with adequate time, adequate supplies, it was well-documented. The accommodations were very good, the recognition was terrific, the banquet at the end was a very positive thing for them. They were very, very ‘up’ about the whole thing. As a matter of fact, several of them have commented that they plan on winning our internal competition so they can go back again!