When Jackie Woods came to United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1991 after seven intense years developing radar simulators at a Baltimore defense contractor, she was concerned that working in the shipping giant's IT department wouldn't be very challenging. "I didn't envision a long career here," she says. After all, UPS was hardly a hotbed of technological innovation at that time, and Woods, a self-confessed "complete nerd" and computer science whiz, needed a challenge.
Woods found one when she observed how inefficient, error-prone, and labor-intensive a process it was to load the UPS fleet of more than 60,000 delivery trucks. For instance, package loaders had to memorize vast address lists, so it could take six weeks to get them up to speed. Drivers often had to rearrange packages before departing to get them in the best order for delivery. (Internally, they call this "touching cardboard.") "There had to be a better way," Woods thought to herself.
Beginning in 1998, she led a team that computerized the entire loading and dispatch process via a $30 million system dubbed Package Flow Technology (PFT), which tells loaders precisely where to place each package and enables them to load three cars at once instead of two, saving millions of dollars in labor costs. Drivers no longer have to shuffle packages around before leaving the warehouse, and they know the precise order in which the parcels need to be dropped off. Meanwhile, better dispatch planning—for example, minimizing left turns—has shaved almost 30 million miles off delivery routes, equal to 3 million gallons of fuel.
Wireless Wrist Printer-scanner
Deployed in the U.S. in 2004, the new system has "revolutionized the way the package center works," says Woods, whose prosaic title of "systems manager" belies the central role she has played over the past two decades in improving the work flow—and bottom line at UPS. Woods' approach to innovation involves absorbing as much information as she can from all aspects of the business—sales, technology, and operations—and then tackling the issue collaboratively. "There's no limit to where you can go to enhance the business," she says. "It's almost like many small businesses inside a large one." That's not to say she's always easy to work with: "I'm a collaborator, but I'm not always nice. I'm a little aggressive and impatient."
Woods, 46, subsequently went to work on technology to improve trucks' fuel use and safety, which in early tests reduced truck idling time by 15 minutes per driver per day. (Factor in 90,000 drivers, and the savings pile up.) More recently, along with engineers at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Woods developed a wireless printer-scanner employees strap to their wrists for processing packages, eliminating the need for clunky workstations and freeing up both time and loading-dock space. "Instead of a paper label with all the waste that goes along with that, now you have an ink-jet printer on your finger," she says. "That was really cool."
Senior managers at UPS clearly recognize and value the innovations shepherded by Woods, who now oversees an IT team of of 100. (Four project managers, each with 25 staffers, report to her.) The next challenge for the UPS Geek Squad: developing advanced algorithms that will automatically shorten delivery routes even further. "We've been charting the shortest travel path using actual, real-time data, rather than historical data," she says. She can't say much more than that, but if she handles the assignment with her usual aplomb, the sky is certainly the limit. "I'd like more responsibility," she says. Given her track record, there's a good chance Woods will get her wish.