Total Quality Logistics CIO Ryan Kean On Keys To Fostering Growth

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Total Quality Logistics, the second largest freight brokerage firm in North America with 2023 revenues of roughly $6.7 billion, has roughly doubled in size since the beginning of the pandemic. It has been able to do so without becoming a victim of that growth because the Cincinnati-based company has embarked on a technology transformation and modernization journey to further differentiate itself in an extremely competitive and fragmented industry.

The leader of that transformation is Ryan Kean, TQL’s Chief Information Officer. He joined the company roughly two and a half years ago. When asked how how he has kept pace with and even stayed ahead of the company’s remarkable growth, he shared that keys have included investing in people and skills development, data strategy and governance, and automation.

Peter High: What are some of the things you’ve been doing from a technology perspective in order to ensure that TQL is well-situated for the growth that it is experiencing?

Ryan Kean: It really starts with that realization that we start as business leaders first and technology leaders second.It’s absolutely critical that we spend the time within our team to understand how our business users use our technology. We do that by shadowing a lot. Ultimately, that’s what we’re able to bring back and share with our product and technology teams to help make sure that we’re focused on what’s going to drive the greatest value. Then we get to apply the fun stuff.

Now it’s like, how do we use a potential new platform or database to meet this current business challenge or maybe a growth opportunity? We try to assemble everybody to look at what the landscape is, and then solution around that. Doing that has really started to help us see around some corners and anticipate future needs. We are leveraging this great inflection point in technology and looking for all the opportunities.

Of course, when you do all that, there’s a big challenge. That’s change management, that’s learning. This is all new technology, it might be all new processes. We’re investing in our people through a very structured technology learning and development program that brings everybody together about every six weeks for a morning. We have two tracks within that. One is a leadership track, and then the other is a technology track.

We’ll have seven or eight sessions where we’ll have outside speakers, we’ll have some of our teammates talk about the great work that they’re doing, we may have a business leader come in and speak about the state of the business or leadership in general. Ultimately, it’s about how do we prepare our technologists for what’s to come? Where’s the technology that we’re going to be employing in the future? What are the soft skills to help them best adapt to a growing and dynamic organization and industry?

High: How do you ensure that you are building the necessary skills for the future? How do you design the curriculum?

Kean: We started with developing an L&D team internal to IT. They work closely with our corporate learning and development organization, but they’re 100% focused within our technology team. The way that we look at curriculum on the technology side starts with our architecture team that covers enterprise architecture solutions and software, data, cyber, and the like. Through them, we can identify those new patterns or potential platforms that we know we’re going to be moving toward in the future. Then we look for the best way to convey that information back out to our teams, such as demos or having an outside speaker come in from a potential vendor.

On the business skill side, from a technology effectiveness perspective, you have to be able to speak the language that your customers are speaking. Where I think technology and technologists have fallen down in the past is we’ll go into a discussion and we will talk technology. The reality is you have to understand the recipient, the listener, who you’re trying to converse with. What is the language they want to talk? That’s always business language. How do we help our technologists grow their soft skills and their ability to connect better with their partners? Over time that’s going to create greater trust across our organization. I think that’s going to lead to greater influence that technology can have in more broad decisions within our team.

High: How do you think about deriving value from data collection, governance and security? How do you formulate data strategy?

Kean: It all starts with what is the problem I’m trying to solve. We really stress the why across our team a lot to make sure that we’re not just chasing shiny objects. At that point, then it gets into how do I trust the data? How do I know it’s timely? How do I know it’s accessible?

Then, start to walk that through more of a data value chain, ultimately to the endpoint of saying, how is this going to be surfaced? It may be through insights or maybe through an application, or through reporting, but ultimately what is the value that that’s going to drive? How do we measure if it’s effective in doing that? We have a lot of investment going into our data area to continue to mature on that journey.

High: A number of CIOs have begun to integrate product operating models into their work and the broader work of their organizations. Could you talk about your methods and how you’ve thought about product management?

Kean: It starts with product managers understanding the business areas that they serve. We have a lot of product managers that we’ve brought from areas within our business and trained them up. They already have some of the knowledge of those processes, of the challenges, of the strategies. Then it becomes, how do we start to sift through and understand the value definition? That gets into how do you create business cases? How do you understand the potential upside opportunity?

Then we work back through our agile development teams to ensure that we’re building the metrics to be able to say, “Yes, we’re actually achieving that.” Here’s the value that we see that is helping to prioritize our investment from a technology perspective, but also on the backside of that we can quantify and show that we’re moving forward materially in a positive way. You gain greater advocacy from their business partners.

You ultimately want your product manager to feel like they’re directly part of the business team. The business team has to be able to see the value in that role. I think the process that we go through getting the feedback, getting the ideas, understanding the strategy, developing a quantifiable and prioritized backlog, being able to measure success, and then creating the feedback loop ultimately helps them gain that inclusion.

High: You’ve talked about automation Hackathons as a means of stimulating ideas associated with the interplay between automation and processes. Can you talk about the methods you’ve used and the value derived from them?

Kean: Each year we select a different Hackathon topic. Automation was a huge success for us. We know it’s something that could be impactful to our teams or excite our teams. We can also see the business upside. We don’t want to invest the time and the energy in this if we don’t think this could actually come out with a material business impact.

We really challenge our teams. You’ll create your own self-formed teams and have software engineers, and infrastructure, and data, and product people. You may have business partners that join a team, but they self form those. They do a whole lot of homework going in to make sure that they have market fit on whatever they want to try. Then we actually do the official Hackathon, a couple of days of just heads-down work.

At the end of that, they have the opportunity to present to our senior leadership. Here’s everything we accomplished, here’s where we think the business challenges are that we’re trying to address, and here’s why this addresses that.” Ultimately, the winner often finds their work on a product roadmap. They also have lunch with our CEO so they can talk more about their ideas, as well as the company in general. It’s a great growth opportunity for all the teams involved, but it’s a great business opportunity for us because you’re just getting these fresh ideas by a team comprised of people that don’t normally work together on a day-in and day-out basis.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written three bestselling books, including his latest Getting to Nimble. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.


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