UPS ORION Advanced Analytics Case Study

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President Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Today’s technological advancements are light years beyond President Wilson’s time; however, his statement still underscores one of our greatest challenges in the tech field. Often, our biggest accomplishments exist not in the actual development of a new technology, but in the effective deployment and adoption of that solution. In other words, even the best technological innovations are worthless if they’re not used.

One year after the first large-scale deployment of the UPS On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) platform, I’m encouraged to see that this program and process is spearheading a groundbreaking change for UPS. This advanced analytics solution and the change management surrounding it is thriving within our organization. While we experienced some roadblocks along the way, the greatest learnings came from navigating these obstacles.

The journey also taught me something else about success in our field. It turns out that if you’ve done everything right in the deployment phase, there will be a time when you have to let your program run without you. Like watching your children grow up to be wonderful adults, a sign of true success comes from letting them go. Nearing the one year anniversary of our official ORION deployment announcement, I wanted to share a few key insights from this amazing voyage.

The Long Road to ORION

It’s hard for me not to get excited when talking about ORION – it’s a project more than a decade in the making, which pushes the boundaries of what we can do with data, advanced analytics and process change.

ORION is a proprietary routing software that utilizes advanced algorithms and UPS’s intelligent, in-depth data to identify the most efficient route for a UPS driver. This system was developed to address our own version of the traveling salesman problem, where a salesman is given a number of stops and must determine the most efficient way to complete the route. Similarly, we wanted to help UPS drivers find the most effective route for the 120 stops they make on average each day.

The road to ORION began in 2003 when we started developing the proprietary algorithm that is the foundation of the system. When we began, we had a huge hurdle to overcome - can data and mathematics possibly show the best and most productive drivers in the world a better way to do their job? Naturally, we had many skeptics and learned a quick lesson. There is a huge difference between “feasible” answers that look good in the lab and “implementable” answers that work in the real world.

So, we went to the experts: our drivers. They taught us that our data was not “pristine” enough, so we started creating maps that are accurate enough for ORION. If you have ever used a navigation system that didn’t get you efficiently between two points, you know what I mean.

Fortunately, we were simultaneously piloting telematics technologies that gathered data from over 200 sensors in each of our vehicles every day. These sensors monitor a variety of measures including engine performance, vehicle idling, safety information like seat belt usage and vehicle location, and even when the truck is in reverse. We married this data with additional information collected on the driver’s handheld computer, called the Delivery Information Acquisition Device (DIAD). Combined, this information was used to make our data accurate enough so that ORION could work, not only in the lab but also in the field.

We then learned another lesson on the difference between “feasible” and “implementable”. There must be a balance between consistency and optimality. Advanced optimizations are great at rearranging things to find the lowest cost alternative. But that means that from day-to-day, they could significantly change a route just to save a penny. As you can imagine, drivers don’t like this and neither do customers. 

We chose to add business rules and subjective parameters to limit and control the day-to-day variations. This not only improved consistency and acceptance by the drivers, but made the solution from ORION more understandable to front-line personnel, all while continually improving the experience for our customers. I can’t understate the value of a solution that is both consistent and understandable, particularly when implementing across a large company like UPS.

I wish I could say that we learned our lessons quickly, but we did not. For the first four years we struggled making the algorithms work consistently. Like the Wright brothers’ plane, it would work for a while, then crash, failing to provide an implementable result. As the data changed, the algorithm would overcompensate creating issues for the system. We came close to canceling the project multiple times.

This led to a new area that had to be let go. We built the ORION logic taking into account tried and true UPS metrics and rules. After many meetings trying to understand what was wrong, we broached an unthinkable subject. What if the UPS rules are wrong?

As it turns out, we had to let go of some of our old rules and teachings. You see, rules and metrics that work well to analyze yesterday don’t necessarily work well to decide tomorrow.  When we let go of these rules and adjusted our thinking, ORION started working every day. 

Our founder, Jim Casey, said it best in 1948: “… a hard part of management’s problem is to know when to make changes and when to hold fast to what is still good”. After four years of hard work we finally had the right balance between the old and the new. 

We successfully piloted the ORION technology from 2008 to 2011, working with our experts in the field who provided feedback on the platform, and partnered with us to test, tweak and enhance the system.  

Little did we know that the hardest part of the project was still in front of us.

From Speed Bump to Key Learning: Transforming Challenges Into Successful Strategies

The ORION pilots were owned by a single corporate team and one of the challenges we had to overcome was scaling the expertise as we prepared to enter the field. We had to move from 30 people owning, understanding and pushing for success to achieving the same buy-in and results with a deployment team of 600 resources.  

Remember, we let go of some of the UPS rules with this system, so we had to make sure that all affected personnel understood and bought into this shift. Not only did this require training and a transfer of knowledge, but we also had to ensure that front line supervisors and planners could locally manage this process once our deployment team left. 

As you can imagine, for our people in the field the first ORION deployment was the most challenging. Many understood that the program worked in theory, but had no guarantee that it would actually work in practice. After they saw firsthand that ORION produced results and cut miles, saved fuel and delivery times, the team members became confident, making each additional deployment that much easier for them.

One of the most challenging parts of any transformational program is change management, and in early 2012, we learned an important lesson here. At the time, we were deploying ORION to a few select “beta” locations. After training the team and implementing the system we were seeing efficiencies well beyond what we anticipated; but, soon after we left, the operations returned to their previous processes. We became a “flavor of the month”.

While we were disappointed by this shift back to old methods, we quickly learned that we had to reevaluate our scorecards and operational metrics to ensure the sites were properly integrating ORION into their daily work permanently. Personally, I listened for changed conversations. As long as people had the same old conversations in the morning, the change had not taken hold.  Like the last stage of Dr. John Kotter’s “Process for Leading Change,” we had to “incorporate change into culture.”

One of the best parts of piloting technology is that we were able to take this key learning, refine our process and enhance the deployment strategy for the next sites, enabling us to change conversations and integrate ORION into daily work.

The need to integrate ORION into processes surfaced through another challenge related to planning for annual volume shifts. Each year in January and July, we experience seasonal volume shifts at UPS where volume reduces. And, each year, planners at our facilities quickly have to adjust their plans to take these shifts into account.

During deployment, we noticed that we were meeting or exceeding ORION goals throughout the year, except during these two timeframes. We initially thought we would have to live with these seasonal performance trends. But, after consideration, we were able to work with the field teams to ensure that ORION was properly used during these times of seasonal change. This highlighted the importance of planning ahead and proactively addressing change management.

As we improved our change management processes and teams fully integrated ORION into their daily operations and planning cycles, we saw significant improvement and results. For example, we all could not have been happier when this year we saw zero loss of performance during these two periods. July actually improved upon results of the previous months - we reversed a trend!

During the remainder of the roll out of ORION in North America, I’m sure we will see new, unexpected challenges, but the team at UPS is prepared to quickly find a solution, which will ultimately strengthen ORION for success moving forward.

Getting In the Fast Lane: Riding Success to Speed Deployment

As we have been improving and deploying ORION, we have seen success beyond what we could have ever imagined. Already, the program has realized incredible savings for the company. On the 10,000 routes deployed in 2013, it is expected that ORION will allow UPS to save more than 1.5 million gallons of fuel and reduce CO2 emissions by 14,000 metric tons. And, due to its unprecedented success, we recently announced that we will be speeding its deployment to realize the benefits of ORION even more quickly than anticipated, which will ultimately create efficiencies for us and better service for our customers.

Now that we are speeding the roll out, we plan to reach 45 percent of the routes in the U.S. by the end of 2014. We also added an additional 200 resources to support the enhanced deployment of ORION, making sure that the team has the support it needs to accelerate the implementation of the program.

The Road Ahead

While ORION cannot address capacity issues, it can enable success by allowing a single driver to make more deliveries, more efficiently and in less time. Sites that currently use ORION are able to deliver more packages in the same amount of time, which will be even more beneficial during peak shipping times, like the upcoming holiday season. And, due to the immediate guidance ORION is able to provide our newest drivers, they are able to be efficient more quickly, which is especially helpful when we ramp up staff during the holidays.

As we navigate the holiday season and continue to deploy ORION over the coming years, we are evaluating and enhancing both the platform and the algorithms to achieve additional efficiencies. In the near future, ORION will be able to provide GPS navigation assistance and real-time on-road updates. This means ORION could adjust for exceptions like accidents or heavy traffic and at the same time tell drivers the most effective roads to get to the updated location, using UPS’s best-in-the-world maps, of course.

Another major enhancement we are anticipating is the integration of ORION into the UPS planning systems. Today, a planner makes a decision and ORION shows the impact. In the future, ORION will suggest alternatives, possibly helping planners up-front.

It can’t be overlooked that the success of this system is linked to the value UPS places on technology and innovation. A huge part of the UPS culture is tied to Jim Casey’s practice of constructive dissatisfaction – or continually striving to improve performance. To truly embrace this philosophy, companies have to put their money where their mouth is – and UPS does this by investing $1 billion annually into consumer and operational technologies.

My involvement with the ORION program has been one of my greatest road trips. It’s surreal to now sit in meetings where people own ORION as a part of their way of business, talking about it as experts and brainstorming ideas and enhancements. I’m excited to see where this program will go next, what it’s capable of doing and how it will continue to differentiate UPS as a company.

As how I saw my children grow into fantastic young adults, I know that the truest testament of our success will be watching others as they take up the torch. I love seeing them own and advocate for the solution, push its capabilities beyond what even we imagined, and truly accept it as part of the UPS organizational culture. Like with my kids, I have a knowing smile hoping maybe I had a little to do with their success.

Jack Levis is senior director of process management at UPS.

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