Transportation Operations: A Strategic, Detailed Guide

The supply chain seas are choppy in the post-pandemic era. It seems like every week, we hear about shortages after shortages. First, it was shortage of semiconductors; next, it was semitruck drivers.

As we track the delays and narratives across the global supply chain, two things become clear in my mind. The first is that the supply chain has never been so clearly global. This could truly be a “we are the world” moment. It’s never been more obvious to me that the global economy exists in a tentative balance.

And secondly, transportation operations managers are earning their paychecks these days. Delays aside, I know transportation managers are working hard to get shipments from point A to B. In fact, I have a feeling that every day, untold numbers of unseen herculean efforts by folks in transportation operations are what keep the whole thing chugging along—and pointed in the right direction.

So, today, we’re going to spend some time looking at transportation operations. What is it, what’s new in the game, how do we play well with others, and what can we do better in order to win?

Operations—That Buzz in Your Breadbasket

Speaking of games, who remembers the Hasbro board game Operation? My children pulled out Operation one night during the homebound-stretch of the pandemic. Let me tell you, it holds up. Unlike other board games from my youth, Operation seems to have gotten harder over the years. Those tweezers are hard to handle with larger hands. OK, maybe my hands were also shaking thanks to a doomscroll-enduced panic.

Regardless, I can assure you, the breadbasket piece is still nearly impossible to remove from poor Cavity Sam. The vaunted breadbasket piece isn’t like threading the eye of a needle in reverse. It’s more like threading the eye of the needle in the haystack.

Which is a fitting parlay into our topic of the day: transportation operations. The operations managers I know can attest that many days on the job feel just like extracting the breadbasket. Buzzwords aside, let’s probe deeper!

They Say Transportation Operations Isn’t Brain Surgery, but…

One way of describing transportation operations is to call it the strategic and tactical backbone to the logistics industry. If you’re like me and believe the logistics industry is the backbone of modern society, well, then you have an important job.

In essence, transportation operations is the process of managing all the components of a business’s transportation services. This includes all stages of a shipment from load planning to pickup to, ultimately, delivery.

More specifically, a transportation operations manager oversees a host of duties. Here’s a laundry list of potential job duties and responsibilities:

  • interface with supplier, shipper, and drivers
  • select carriers
  • interface with transportation management software (TMS)
  • manage contracts and paperwork
  • handle purchase orders and bills of lading
  • mitigate risks and ensure safety
  • provide hours of service (HOS) support
  • track fuel use
  • set vehicle maintenance schedules
  • track shipments
  • manage shipment delays and claims

Depending on what branch of the logistics industry you fall within, your job title, and the size of your company, operations can involve even more responsibilities.

Transportation Operations Managers

Oh, and if you get into a management position, add these responsibilities to your radar:

  • interviewing
  • staff training and mentorship
  • payroll and HR functions or office administrations
  • company safety programs, meetings, and protocol rollouts
  • accident investigations
  • systems training

But regardless of the specific job duties, at the end of the day, transportation operations is all about finding efficiencies, enhancing performance, and implementing cost-saving strategies.

Transportation Operations: Different Areas of Focus

As noted earlier, transportation operations managers tend to wear many hats. Simply put, there’s a lot to know and a lot of moving parts (literally). Plus, everything is constantly changing in general. Therefore, a sophisticated transportation operations manager needs to keep their head on a swivel and, above all, stay curious.

What do I mean by that? Well, for example, what modes of transportation do you service? What areas do you deal in? But does your company offer just motor carrier services, or are you branching out?

  • full truckload (FTL)
  • less than truckload (LTL)
  • heavy weight and oversized
  • intermodal/rail
  • liquid/ bulk freight
  • hazmat
  • airfreight
  • ocean freight
  • small package and parcel
  • last mile
  • freight forwarding
  • brokers and 3PLs

It’s worth noting that every one of these areas is niche to master. As such, each niche (and each niche of each niche) comes with its own special rules, regulations, and best practices. OK, you know the ins, outs, nooks, and crannies of your niche.

Just in case, I recommend keeping the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) website hand as a baseline. I find it a good starting place for maintaining compliance with all things related to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Best Practices for Transportation Operations Internal Customers

Broadly speaking, when talking about best practices for transportation operations, I tend to look at the world in one of two ways. The first category is our internal customers. The second category is our external customers. What does that mean?

  • Internal customers are everyone we interface with inside our company. These are our drivers, our dispatchers, our back office personnel, accounting, HR, and upper management.

One way to think of this is to think of the cliched team mentality. We’re not looking to sell our team members so much as much as we’re looking for their buy-in. Indeed, it helps to have everyone pulling in the same direction when you’re playing tug o’ war. The best way to get everyone on the same page up and down your org chart is via a wholly integrated software stack, from TMS to GPS to payroll.

The starting place for true technological integration is cloud-based document digitization from a company like Vector. Cloud-based, digitized documents and a paperless workflow facilitate work-from-home, safer drivers, and faster payments.

Treat your people well. Company culture is important. But don’t stop at installing a breakroom ping-pong table. And save the rah-rah speech for a different labor market. You get what you pay for, so take all the money you saved by digitizing your operations and pay your people well! Remember, operations is a tough racket, and never-ending, and vital. But also remember this: nothing cools the fires of burnout like a bigger paycheck.

Best Practices for Transportation Operations External Customers

Who’s going to pay these costs I’m racking up?  Why, the external customers, of course.

  • External customers are everyone outside the walls of our company. These are our shippers, our 3PLs, and our customers.

Sure, carrier rates are at an all-time high. That’s simply the market dynamics. It’s not your fault there’s a driver shortage, labor shortage, container shortage, and overall capacity shortage all at the same time. But even as you command a healthier price, I highly recommend you think longer term when it comes to customer service.

In short, deliver the goods.

One of my favorite manufacturing business adages comes to mind. “You can have price, quality, or delivery—choose two.”

Price is out the door for the time being. Delivery might even be iffy at times. So, how about you focus on quality? You can always sell your customer on quality. After all, you get what you pay for, right? So, let’s turn the moment of crisis into an opportunity for growth.

After all, the entire supply chain industry is changing. Everyone is trying to adapt to unprecedented times. How do we regain or maintain an edge on the competition? How do we land strategic, long-term, mutually beneficial customer partnerships?

To circle back around, we’re talking about onboarding the right tech again. All good customers like to see innovation and continuous improvement efforts. A number of enterprise companies are starting to onboard control towers and other tools of supply chain visibility. Keep in mind that supply chain visibility for your customer means improved responsiveness to their customers.

Cloud-based digitized document software provides the raw data infrastructure that facilitates the next-gen tools of tech. Simply put, it seems like digitization is rapidly becoming the baseline.

Keep a Steady Hand

In the final analysis, the supply chain is a bit unsettled right now. But it’s just like playing the board game Operation. Keep a steady hand! And keep your eyes on the future.

This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.

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