11 Apr CIO Leadership Series: Judy Lemke, Schneider National
Green Bay, Wis. – Whenever the title executive vice president is part of a CIO’s title, the technologist usually is an established part of management. So it is with Judy Lemke, who was lured out of retirement by Schneider National following a career that she thought was winding down.
Lemke, executive vice president and CIO for the Green Bay-based provider of global transportation, logistics, and intermodal services, was recruited to be an integral part of an eight-person executive team that reports to the board of directors and the CEO.
Based on her experience, which includes various senior information technology positions during an 18-year stint with Medtronic, Lemke’s responsibilities are atypical of most CIOs. She is a full-fledged member of the executive team, she’s involved in all enterprise strategy, and she’s accountable for business transformation, change management, engineering, and information technology.
Other than that, the company doesn’t rely on her much, and her level of accountability would probably be the envy of even the most ambitious CIOs. “I am expected to weigh in on every decision, every acquisition, every business decision we make, everything that we do, including the area that I represent,” she said.
A graduate of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Lemke had spent most of her career in the Twin Cities and wasn’t familiar with Schneider before the company, which reports $3.5 billion in annual revenue and has 20,000 employees, made its pitch.
She planned to enjoy retirement and a consulting engagement with Best Buy, and she had no intention to work full time. All of the sudden, she was contacted by Schneider, Harley-Davidson, and Schwan’s.
Her tenure at Medtronic had set a high bar for the type of work she prefers because when you work for a company that saves lives on a daily basis, other opportunities seem mundane.
“I didn’t’ even know what Schneider was,” she acknowledged, “and when I learned they were in trucking and transportation, my initial reaction was, `How boring could that be?’”
Not very, as she would soon discover. As she talked to acquaintances more familiar with Schneider, they painted a compelling picture of a quality company, an information-intensive industry and, noted Lemke, they asked “if I didn’t want to check it out, could they?”
Within one short meeting, Lemke was sold, which says a lot because she was at the end of her career, and she had no desire to move.
But move she did. At Schneider, she supervises an information technology staff of 400 employees, not including a “variable staff” of up to 400 that can be called upon.
She oversees several groups that impact business change. Her business transformation group evaluates the process and technological impacts of business activity. Another group is focused on continuous process re-engineering, whether or not it’s associated with technology. Then, there is a formal change-management function with groups that make decisions on projects or technology implementations.
Since both Schneider and the transportation industry are dependent on process engineering and technology, there is no area of the company that IT doesn’t touch. Schneider has so much appreciation for technology that current CEO Chris Lofgren and chief marketing executive Steve Matheys are former CIOs.
“This is an organization that has a really good and holistic understanding about the power, the limits, and the implications of technology,” Lemke said.
The company recently was granted a license to do business in China, which is one piece of a multi-dimensional growth strategy. It’s one more geographic location, albeit a vast one, where Schneider will apply technology and go where its multi-national customers go.
China might be the world’s most populous country, but it’s not Schneider’s most far-reaching strategic initiative. That prize would go to the ongoing replacement of legacy technologies.
The company, which has a broad portfolio of products and services, must be able to provide seamless “quote-to-cash” capability within its three business units: truckload, logistics, and intermodal. As such, it’s in the process of a large transformation that will apply technologies to building that capability while retiring legacy applications.
Schneider is changing some of the core transportation systems from its days as an asset-based trucking business. As it adds capabilities like warehousing and cross-docking, some of those basic technologies must be extended.
Of course, the bigger transformation is a human one involving changing processes and people. The project will touch every employee, including some 15,000 drivers, and the tools they use – communication and collaboration technologies and asset-tracking technology.
Lemke is trying to gets her arms around all this by painting a picture of what Schneider is doing and why. In her two years with the organization, she has played a role in developing a holistic business model that makes transparent all the moving parts within the businesses, and the model is supported by a set of business operating principles.
An executive team has put together a transformation strategy that includes the types of technologies that will support process change, and a timeframe to accomplish it. In addition, a core team of high-level individuals was pulled from each business area and linked to the executive team. Each individual reports directly to one of the executives, and this core project team reports on decisions, issue resolution, and anything executives must be engaged in.
“That’s how we are managing what we are doing, and what kind of processes that we will be changing in order to get to our end-state vision,” Lemke said.
Meantime, a formal change-management process has begun so that teams understand how every individual associate will be impacted by the change, and so they can engage people early on.
During her career, Lemke has been entrusted with everything from driving revenue growth to executing system-wide implementations. She even been told, “you’re on your own,” and it produced valuable insight.
Early on, she was an achievement oriented project manager working on a critical payroll implementation where the company changed all of its hardware to a new platform. She was responsible for getting the new payroll system implemented before year’s end because there was no alternative once the company moved to the new platform. Even after exhaustive assessments, the only software choice was between two vendors who offered only a beta version.
Knowing it was already risky proposition, her company elected to pursue one of the vendors. They hired a consulting firm more skilled in the new hardware, operating system, and programming languages, but after several weeks they weren’t making the progress they anticipated.
Then, another shoe dropped. They had a meeting with a vendor who admitted the system was never complete, had lost some key representatives, and was considering whether to abandon the entire effort. With no real alternative, Lemke went to the CIO and the CFO and explained the situation.
“They calmly said, `Well, these things happen, but you need to figure it out,” Lemke recalled, “and by the way, don’t share this with other people because we don’t need to start a panic here.”
She worked with the vendor and applied her own staff to writing code, and ultimately they got the project done on schedule with the vendor paying the entire cost. Had she known what she knows today, Lemke probably would have concluded that it was impossible, and she admitted the route she took runs counter to today’s conventional wisdom about cutting losses.
Fortunantely, there was a recognizable path, and Lemke believed she could overcome the obstacles. “I just never considered that there was another option except success,” Lemke said. “Systematically, we just got over any of the little things that got in the way of making that happen. I think it was one of the turning points in my career.”