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Johnson Says GSA Can Make the Federal Fleet More Efficient and Sustainable

Condensed remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
FedFleet Motor Vehicle and Aviation Conference
Phoenix, AZ
July 13, 2010

It's really good to be here. I feel as if I have come home. That is for a number of reasons. My husband was a cabdriver for 11 years in Denver. He was the head of the independent drivers' association and has his degree in automotive and maintenance from the Denver Automotive and Maintenance Academy. That was, however, before I met him. So he climbed out of the cab. We both were at Cummins Engine Co. in the '70s and '80s when it was facing down Komatsu and trying to figure out how America could have a significant diesel engine manufacturing capacity that would truly compete globally.

I was just a kid, and one of the first things they made me do was to take courses in inventory control, so I'm a certified production and inventory control specialist. I took the exams, and I got my Apex certification and turned around and realized that everything we had been taught and tested for was changing, and changed within about two years. At Cummins, we moved from the old-style production management notions of stock to the just-in-time notions. That was a huge revolution to live through.

As a result, when I started my career, I thought that kind of massive change was pretty normal, and carried sort of that sense of naïveté throughout into my other jobs. But the Cummins experience was formative in so many ways. I will say that about three years ago, my husband and I were in the plant in Jamestown, New York, where we were making the 10-liter diesel engine, which was destined for the European market and ended up being much more significant globally. We were in that plant as we took that whole assembly line apart and converted it to a just-in-time process in 24 months, because Komatsu had told Ford they were going to sell them an engine at something like half the cost of the Cummins engines.

We went back to the plant a couple years ago with our son and took him around the plant, which has now made a million engines, and I have to say the pride of the people there and what we were part of starting there in the early '80s is just remarkable. The real story is that Cummins, as a result of embarking on that significant change, is now one of the leading Six Sigma companies, recognized as that. And they have not offshored that engine. It's a big story, and I'm very proud. Coming here to be part of FedFleet allows me to do a little bit of sentimental reminiscing. I appreciate you listening to that.

I want to talk a little bit about GSA, and I want to give you a little bit of idea about where we're going. Hope this isn't too much inside baseball, but let me take you through some of the big notions that we've been sharing within the agency.

GSA's mission is the mission of our customers. We are there to help them do their missions. You know, the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to take care of the veterans. GSA needs to take care of VA. The Education Department needs take care of educating our children and our young people, and GSA needs to take care of the Education Department. The fleet support that we give to the agencies is crucial for them. It's crucial that they have operations that give them reliable, efficient, effective, safe, and competitively priced transportation. They are working across the country. They're working globally. They need to get around and get around efficiently. I am delighted that you are partners with us in supporting those missions of the agencies across the government. This is our country's work.

The federal government is a sizable fleet consumer. We have 650,000 motor vehicles in the federal fleet; 6,700 marine vessels, 889 planes, 739 helicopters. If you just step back and think about that, the size and scope is huge. So if we make a small change, it magnifies across all of that. It duplicates across all of that size. So anything we do is of significance, and we take it very seriously. We appreciate your help in all of that.

I am thrilled to be part of the Obama administration. I will say that the difference in returning to the government this time to participate in this administration is that GSA is truly understood by this president to be an asset to the government. In the past, I always felt when I was at GSA in the '90s that GSA did remarkable work, but the rest of the government sort of didn't see it, know it, understand it, and didn't know how to leverage us. This president genuinely understands that we can be a partner across the administration. This is very different. This is a very different positioning for us. It makes us stand up and polish ourselves up a little bit, and it puts us out in front in ways we never understood before.

I think that GSA's gone through a lot of transformation. Back when Harry S. Truman created us, he was after getting better prices for the government through centralized purchasing. It was a great idea. Centralizing purchasing was one of those things they really began to understand during World War II, and it took shape in GSA. And so, for nearly 50 of our over 60-year history, we were the central purchaser. We were the monopoly. You know what happens with a monopoly, as well. We can command low prices; we don't necessarily, consistently, persistently, and over time command the best value.

And so, in the 1990s, the Klinger-Cohen Act changed our mandate. That was a remarkable moment, both for the government and for GSA because no longer were we simply out there trying to find the best price. We are now committed to finding the best value for the government, and I know that you as taxpayers and all of us appreciate that formulation of the problem. The best value allows us to look across options. It's more stimulating for industry. I think it is a better competitive norm. Price is just one element, and we all know where just competing on price can take you.

We are now well into a period of adjustment to the Klinger-Cohen Act. It isn't something that you can easily do: turn off one whole culture and system and turn on another. But since I have returned to GSA, I am amazed at how we have internalized and understood that we need to be giving best value to the government. I see in just huge dimensions within our fleet operations and our work with you in industry because I think we are delivering value to the government. It is through our industry partners that we are doing that.

Now, what I want to talk about a little bit – as I said, I hope it's not too much inside baseball – I want to talk about how we are shaping GSA so that we are persistently and consistently producing best value for our customers. It's a very simple thing: How do you get an organization to be high-performing? This is the question that people always ask as they come into an organization: How can we move it to a higher level of performance?

The answer's actually pretty simple, and it's on the Internet. There are three things you have to do – and you can Google these three phrases, and you'll come up with these models. You can push for operational excellence. You can push for innovation. And you can push for customer intimacy. If you work those dimensions, your organization's performance is just simply going to go up. It's been shown over and over again. It used to be that we thought you had to just work one of those. Be operationally excellent – be Wal-Mart; be innovative – be Apple; be customer intimate – be Nordstrom, and your life will be made. But since they introduced those concepts in the early '90s, it's been clear that you can't do one without the other.

Now, I will refer to these three categories as I go through some of my stories about GSA here, and you'll get the cadence of it. I think everybody at GSA can probably reel those three things off to you, but it helps us stay focused.

You will also notice that your tax dollars are at work there. You can pull your strategy off the Internet; it saves a lot of time inside an organization than going on for weeks and weeks and hammering out a strategy. That's our strategy – operational excellence, innovation, and customer intimacy.

So let me talk about operational excellence, GSA, and Fed Fleet. The way operational excellence manifests itself for us is in a word: safety. If we are functioning with the notions of safety, we are doing what we need to be doing in terms of producing value within the federal fleet. I am thrilled, now that I've returned to GSA, to become a good friend and colleague of Bill Webster. You all know Bill. One of the things that's remarkable about Bill is that he is someone with whom you can have a conversation, and I'll bet 90 percent of those conversations will, at some point, yield some thoughts about safety. He is a true champion of the issues of safety.

We need to carry that with us. Safety is not something you can simply create rules about. It's about behavior. It's about a whole system around our fleets. Bill understands that, and I think across GSA, we are internalizing that. I know that many of you are associating with and emphasizing distracted driving issues and defensive driving training and support, and I think those are the kinds of programs and the kinds of attention that we need to pay to this issue.

Safety can change an entire culture. It is a complete concept. It can dictate how we come to work, what we do at work, and how we go home. It's not just within the four walls of our agencies. And so, as the fleet works on safety, so the government will be better. And I commend you for any work that you could do on that front.

That's the operational excellence improvement angle that we are keen to continue and support. Moving from operational excellence, I'm now going to talk about innovation, and this is the bulk of what people have been setting me up to be talking about. The way we're thinking about innovation is, in large part, surrounding the notion of sustainability.

The president issued an executive order last fall around sustainability, and it's a demanding one. We filed a plan with the White House about a month ago. We expect to get it back shortly, and then we can discuss it more publicly. They're tweaking it and absorbing it. I think we've been quite energetic in our plan, and this is going to be the framework under which we're going to be functioning.

But, in the spring, one of the first things we did was say, "What are we doing, and where are we going?" So we took all the leadership on a field trip. We went to Georgia and toured a carpet company there that declared in 1994 that they had a goal of being a zero environmental footprint organization.

But what's interesting about it is that by declaring the goal of zero environmental footprint – a major sustainability goal – they began to look at their entire enterprise differently. The way they unpacked this is, I think, a wonderful story. First of all, they began to grab on to the technology of carpet tiles because they said, "If we're going to really get into this zero environmental footprint business, we need to be recycling much better. We need to be capturing it. Why take out a whole carpet when you could just take out the square that's a little bit worn?" So they started working on carpet tiles pretty intensely.

They also came up with the notion of thinking about products not from cradle to grave – not from creating the product all the way through to disposing of the product. They were thinking about the cycle of cradle to cradle, meaning you have a product, and you design and create that product with the notion that it will come back to you. It'll come back, and you will reuse it, or you will return it to the elements of nature.

This cradle-to-cradle philosophy they were working with. They decided to emphasize a different financial model, as well. They are now in the business of leasing carpets so they can control their inventory in that cycle. So they lease carpets and then they will claim them back, and that was another way in which their enterprise was changed by this notion of zero environmental footprint. We went to see them. We visited their factories, their recycling center. We listened to how they have changed their language. They talk about waste as "food." They have all kinds of ways in which they are just shifting their headset about sustainability. So we learned a lot, and we returned to GSA, and we decided that we, too, want to embark on this very ambitious goal of aiming for zero environmental footprint.

Now, this is important to be clear about. A goal like this is a little bit like President Kennedy in the '60s saying we're going to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. It is a huge goal that no one knows how to do. It electrifies everyone because it is the right thing to do. It is a cool thing to do. It engages the next generation. It powers up the best of our thinking. It puts us onto a path together. Zero environmental footprint is a huge goal. We don't know how to do it. We don't know how long it's going to take or what it's going to require of us.

I will tell you a couple of things. One is that all the young people want to come and work at GSA now. We are inviting and gathering and gaining talent just in the last couple of months that we never could have done before. So we are going to be able to command the best and the brightest.

We are also finding that internally it brings us together. We're all rowing in the same boat, rather than doing whatever else we are doing. It unites us; how we do buildings, how we do fleet, how we do purchasing. All of our own activity comes together under this notion. So it's a wonderful way in which we become an enterprise going forward together.

So the notion of a zero environmental footprint goal is huge. It's staggering. It leaves us all saying, “I don't even know where to start.” But that's a good confusion, it's a good set of questions, and it's the right one.

I want, however, to be very explicit about the transportation world. If you look across industry – and we look across a lot of industry. IT, housing, construction, engineering, consumables – the place that probably has the biggest challenge in terms of zero environmental footprint is the transportation industry. There are a lot of ways in which we can redesign products that we make. There are a lot of ways that we can run our technologies differently. We can construct and build our infrastructure differently. But transportation is the tough one. This is why it is so special for you because as you are pushing toward green, you are learning a huge amount, and you are setting a pace for everyone else.

Because if you can do it – if you can push down this road – everybody else has no excuse.

So we have a huge technological challenge. But it is the attitude of the transportation industry, that we're going to jump in, and you're going to see what you can do. You're going to try, and you're going to have some failures, and you're going to take some risks, and we're going to learn together. That is what we as a country can only ask, that an industry be aggressive in this important goal. So GSA is in this really special place of acting as a membrane between government and industry, and on this subject, I think we want to be as good a filter, a connector, a sharer of information to enable industry and government to move down this path of a greener set of transportation options.

And let me just return to that comment about risk. I think the notion that we can move forward in sustainability without risk is a little demented. There are going to be a lot of risks we're going to be taking, and we're going to have a lot of failures. You can only expect that. I believe in failing fast, failing fruitfully, and failing forward. I do believe in failure. I think we learn, but we need to take bite-sized risks so those failures are not phenomenal big ones.

So we will be playing with these ideas, talking about them a lot, urging you to share your thoughts. Sustainability is close to our heart. Our goal of zero environmental footprint, I think, is going to be a radical one to galvanize GSA and all our partners.

One thing I will add, though, is that we're not just thinking about zero environmental footprint and the fleet in terms of how to power the fleet. I think that there is also a human factor in this. As an agency, we are also aggressively pursuing the best of the technologies that allow us to work virtually. We are beginning to get away from the notion that everything is in a time and a place. If we are in the same time, we don't always have to be in the same place. Work is what you do, not necessarily where you are.

You will be hearing from GSA more policy, more technology notions, and more investment in ways in which the federal government can be working together without traveling. There are a lot of reasons why this is a good idea. The original reason – which is a very important one and is important to the first lady and the first family – is the notion of work and family demands and stress. If people have more virtual options, we have more flexibility in terms of being with our families and getting our work done. As a working mother, I know how valuable that would have been in those days of tearing around and being away from my children.

But we are moving into an arena where now virtual workplaces are arguably very sensible for three other reasons. One is financial. If we can cut back on our actual geographic footprint in terms of buildings by having people working more at home – or at Star bucks – let them pay the bill. So financially, there is really becoming a new return on investment for why we should be pursuing virtual work.

The second one is, of course, environmental, as I have been speaking. Getting us off the roads is a good idea.

But the third is security. There is a huge argument now for figuring out how the government can be dispersed and highly functional. As we pursue virtual work, we are supporting our environmental goals, our financial goals, our social/family goals, and our security goals. So there is a lot of power behind the virtual work notion. I'm sure that you all are interested in tracking that and seeing how aggressive we are going to be.

All right. So I've been talking a lot about sustainability. Let me remind you I'm talking first about operational excellence, then innovation in the form of sustainability, and the third piece to the change work at GSA is around customer intimacy. Customer intimacy might be a phrase that makes some people a little uncomfortable, but it's the phrase. And it is about how well we know our customers.

The fleets are in a particularly good position to help GSA understand its customers, and that is because it is from fleet activity that we can harvest an enormous amount of data about our customers. Customer intimacy is about having that data working on that. And through all sorts of data constructs off the fleet work – traffic information, consumption information, usage, mileage – GSA actually will have a data profile on its customers that is even better than the customers have on themselves. That puts us in a hugely powerful position of being able to help customers at a new level.

Just think of it this way. You can watch your own fleet, if you're an agency and kind of understand what you're doing, but you don't have the context of what the rest of the government is doing. We do. That is a powerful and enormously helpful bit of information to share with our customers.

So the world of fleet management, the more it can produce, harvest, analyze, and understand the data that comes from our transportation, the better we can be at helping the government be efficient, effective, and safe. I commend you as you work on the tracking and the analytics of all of that data because it allows us to make data work for us.

Many people say that Washington is an evidence-free zone, and I believe that that is perhaps a fair call on some days. But it is the kind of data and information that we can command in this kind of a setting that truly can help the government move forward and work off good information. So operational excellence in the world of safety, innovation in the world of sustainability, and customer intimacy in the world of good data – your work with us and our work supporting our customers will help this government move forward.

I think the fleet is at a moment – we're at a moment in which many things are changing, and your work, your data, your safety, your innovation can help us power the government forward and help us answer some of the toughest problems that we have. You touch almost all other industries. You touch the economy. The transportation sector intersects with all of our other industries. You are concerned about our security and our labor force. As goes your industry, so goes the country.

It is your moment, and we want to be your partner in it. You are critical in supporting the missions of our customer agencies. We can't interdict drugs without boats and cars. We can't fight fires without airplanes and fire trucks. We can't move people and cargo without the right tools to the war fighter. So thank you so much for your help on that. It is great to be here with you today.

I want to thank you for your time. It's been good to be here. I'm going to enjoy seeing the displays and the convention hall. And I wish you a good, powerful week in which you're learning a lot and you're carrying back to industry and to the government the best of the fed fleet.

Thank you.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13