Tag Archives: Sam Walton

Thought Leader in Action: At Walmart

How do you manage risk when your company is the biggest employer in the U.S. other than the federal government? Very carefully — and very well, if you’re K. Max Koonce II, the senior director of risk management at Walmart, until recently, when he took a senior position at Sedgwick. You do that partly by taking advantage of an extraordinary amount of data to identify potential problems, to use outcomes analysis to greatly shrink the number of litigation firms you use, to be highly selective about doctors used for workers’ comp and even to set up a full-sized, in-house third party administrator.

But let’s begin at the beginning:

Koonce was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Bentonville, AR, where he has lived most of his life with his wife and family. He attended Harding University, a private liberal arts university located in Searcy, AR, where he graduated with a BBA in economics. Thinking that economics was not as challenging a career as what he aspired to, Koonce attended the University of Arkansas William Bowen School of Law to obtain his J.D.

He was immediately hired by Walmart upon his graduation in the ’90s and was given the responsibility to set up Walmart’s internal legal defense system for the roughly 30,000 Walmart employees at the time. He and his in-house team of legal aides handled all of Walmart’s workers’ comp and ultimately much of its liability claims. The program worked so well that the governor of Arkansas appointed Koonce as an administrative law judge for the state workers’ comp commission in 1997, with Walmart’s blessing. With Koonce’s departure, Walmart eliminated the internal legal program and transferred its litigation to outside legal firms.

koonce
K. Max Koonce II

By January 2000, Koonce was appointed by the governor to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. With a vacancy in the State’s Supreme Court, Koonce ran for State Supreme Court in a partisan election. During the campaign, he shared fond memories of attending all kinds of civic events, fundraisers and county fairs around the state. When he failed to get elected, Walmart brought him back to head its risk management program that same year. The program grew dramatically with his return.

Apart from the U.S. government, Walmart is the largest employer in North America. Nearly 20 million people shop at Walmart every day, and 90% of the U.S. population lives within 15 minutes of a Walmart. If Walmart were a country, it would be the 26th-largest economy in the world. Walmart manages 11,500 retail units in 28 countries; generates $482 billion in annual sales; and has 2.2 million employees (1.4 million associates in the U.S.). Koonce exclaimed that there was no other retail company to benchmark to, so his risk management department had to make up its own risk benchmarks. Interestingly, with a tightly managed work culture and such huge numbers to work with, Walmart’s risk management statistical and actuarial claim calculations have proven to be consistently accurate for many years.

Walmart’s risk management department has grown over the years to more than 40 risk management support personnel. Walmart divides its risk portfolio by working with two competing insurance brokers. Koonce said he had an incredibly talented and dedicated team of risk management professionals working at headquarters in Bentonville. “The analytics and metrics achieved by my experts,” he said, “were as good as any in the insurance industry.” He said that no relevant risk factors in Walmart’s operation went unnoticed.

Walmart’s workers’ comp program is designed to include specific doctors and medical facilities to ensure consistent care of any injured workers. Walmart manages detailed feedback from all of its employees to continue to fine tune its workers’ comp program. Koonce stated that risk management has always been a part of the Walmart culture, going back to its founding by Sam Walton in 1962; Walton wanted to help individuals and communities save money while ensuring that the company’s operations adhere to ethical decision making, good communication and responsiveness to employees and stakeholder.

Using an “outcomes-based” approach to litigation management, Walmart’s team relies on claims data analysis and metrics to choose, evaluate and consolidate the number of workers’ comp attorney firms. Max notes: “This approach forms tighter relations with a smaller number of lawyers to create a ‘one team’ approach to litigation.” In California alone, for example, the mega-retailer reduced the number of legal defense firms from more than 20 to three. The outcomes-based litigation strategy relies on a multivariate analysis using Walmart’s own claims data. Metrics are used to benchmark attorney performance and align specific lawyers with cases depending on claim facts and knowledge about an attorney’s unique skills and experience. At Walmart, claims examiners generally choose specific defense attorneys to maintain a continuing team relationship.

Besides retail store risks, Walmart also manages the largest private trucking firm in the U.S. and delivers more prescriptions than any other retailer. Asked if he had experienced any highly unusual claims during his tenure at Walmart, Koonce said that Walmart is all about awareness, control and consistency and that claims were nearly always within an expected parameter (i.e. slip-and-fall claims) and not horrific, as some employers experience. Each store location, including Sam’s Clubs, have conscientious safety response teams that sweep the stores periodically during their shifts and respond immediately to any safety hazards like floor spills.

A unique feature of Walmart is its subsidiary, a third party claims administrator (TPA) called Claims Management Inc. (CMI), at which Koonce served as president. Located in nearby Rogers, AR, CMI administers the casualty claims, including workers’ compensation, for all Walmart stores. Although most companies with national operations use insurer claims administrators (for non-self-insured operations), or multiple regional TPAs, Walmart’s CMI operation is a sizable TPA of its own with 600 employees. As Koonce explains, “CMI provides the claims oversight the company feels is desirable to maintain good control, communication and consistency.”

Unlike most national companies, Walmart has been able to maintain a highly efficient and focused risk management program through a tight-knit organization consisting of mostly local or regional employees who live and work in Benton County, AR (pop. 242, 321). Most of Walmart’s managers have been employees who have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Sam Walton once said: “We’re all working together; that’s the secret.”

Koonce left Walmart in September to serve as senior VP of client services for Sedgwick Claims Management Services. He was succeeded by Janice Van Allen, director of risk management at Walmart, who started as a store department manager in 1992. Koonce said he’s doing what he loves most at Sedgwick — helping risk managers achieve success with their internal programs.

Decision Dysfunction in Corporate America

Nancy Newbee is the newest trainee for LOCO (Large Old Company). She was hired because she is bright, articulate, well-educated and motivated. She is in her second week of training.

Her orders include: “We’ll teach you all you need to know. Sammy Supervisor will monitor your every action and coordinate your training. Don’t take a step without his clearance. When he’s busy, just read through the procedures manual.”

Nancy is already frustrated by this training process but is committed to following the rules.

Upon arriving at work today, Nancy discovers the kitchen is on fire! As instructed, she rushes to Sammy Supervisor. Interrupting him, she says, “There’s a major problem!”

Sammy is obviously disturbed by this interruption in his routine. “Nancy, my schedule will not allow me to work with you until this afternoon; go back to the conference room and continue studying the procedures.”

“But, Mr. Supervisor, this is a major problem!” Nancy pleads.

“But nothing! I’m busy. We’ll discuss it this afternoon. If it can’t wait, go see the department head,” Sam says.

Nancy rushes to the office of Billy Big and shouts, “Mr. Big, we have a major problem, and Mr. Sam said to see you!” Mr. Big states politely, “I’m busy now …,” all the while wondering why Sam hires these excitable airheads.

“But, Mr. Big, the building…,” Nancy interrupts.

“Nancy, see my secretary for an appointment or call maintenance if it’s a building problem,” Mr. Big says impatiently, thinking, “Where does Sam find these characters?”

Near panic, Nancy calls maintenance. The line is busy. As a last resort, Nancy calls Ruth Radar, the senior secretary in the accounting department. Everyone has told her that Ruth really runs this place. She can get anything done.

“Ruth Radar, may I help you?” is the response on the phone.

“Miss Radar, this is Nancy, the new trainee. The building is on fire! What should I do?” Nancy shouts through her tears.

“Nancy, call 911!” Ruth says calmly.

Of course, this dysfunction is a ridiculous example. Or is it?

Assuming you are the boss, try this eight-question test:

  1. In your business, do you hire the best and brightest and then instruct them not to think, act or do anything during their training except as you tell them to do?
  2. Do you promise training but substitute reading of procedure manuals?
  3. Do you create barriers to communications, interaction and effectiveness by scheduling the new employee’s problems and inquiries to the busy schedules of your other personnel?
  4. Do you and your staff ignore what new employees are saying?
  5. Is the process more important than the result? Does the urgent get in the way of the important?
  6. Do layers of bureaucracy between you, your employees and customers interfere with contact, communications and results?
  7. Is “Ruth Radar” running your shop?
  8. Do you have any fires burning in your office?

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations!

Now go back and try again. The perfect business would have eight “no” answers, but very few businesses are perfect. If you are like LOCO (a large old company), you might be so far out of touch with your trainees, employees and customers that you won’t hear about a fire until it starts to burn your desk.

Look back at IBM, GM and Sears in the late 1980s. These were kings of their jungles. Yet all nearly burned to the ground. Many thousands of employees were terminated, profits ended and stock values fell. If you would have talked to any of these terminated employees you would have learned that the fire had burned for a long time and that many people had tried to sound the alarm.

Remember the large old insurance companies that are no longer here – Continental, Reliance, etc. Did their independent agents smell the smoke? Did the leadership of these carriers ignore the alarm?

Sam Walton, who had reasonable success in business during his lifetime, once said, “There is only one boss – the customer. Customers can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending their money somewhere else.”

Sam was right. In your business, do you or Nancy have the most direct contact with the customer – the ultimate boss? If Nancy has the most contact, is she adequately trained, motivated and monitored? Is she providing feedback to you? Are you listening?

Take one minute to draw a picture of your organization. Are you, as the boss, at the pinnacle? Are Nancy and her fellow trainees at the base? Is it prudent to have the least experienced personnel closest to the customers?

Your organization was formed to meet the needs of customers. You exist to serve these same customers. Where are these customers in the organizational chart? Did you forget them? How much distance is there between you (as boss) and the customers?

Does this pyramid model facilitate the free flow of information between you and the customers or does it buffer you from the thoughts and feelings of the real boss (the customer)? In your business, is the customer and her problem seen as an interruption of the work or the very reason for your existence?

If your customers voted tomorrow, who would be retained? Who would be fired?

Think about it! Do you dare to ask?