Building a better working world

Randy Lewis

No greatness without goodness

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Randy Lewis has led a quiet revolution.

Having recently retired as Walgreens’ senior vice president of supply chain, he inspired a program to bring disabled individuals into the workforce as equals to their non-disabled peers, with the same pay and opportunities for advancement and job mobility. Today, 1,000 disabled workers are employed throughout the company’s 20 distribution centers — 10% of the centers’ workforce.

At a young age, Lewis felt the urge to build a better working world. He joined the Peace Corps out of college and went to Peru, teaching farmers how to better manage agricultural cooperatives that would benefit their businesses and their community. Even then, he was pushing to change a culture where such institutions did not exist. He calls it “a wonderful experience.”

He later earned his MBA at the University of Texas. By the early ‘90s Lewis was serving Walgreens as a consultant in Ernst & Young LLP’s Chicago office. He loved the people, the work and the partnership culture. He has great memories of working with Partner Jim DiStasio, who went on to become Ernst & Young LLP Senior Vice Chairman and Americas Chief Operating Officer.

Walgreens was Lewis’ primary client until 1992, when the company offered him a position. “Until that morning,” he recalls, “I never thought I would work for a client. But everything I had trained for to that point prepared me for the job.”

Seize the moment — make a difference

While leaving EY and its people was difficult, Lewis found that Walgreens was going through an exciting period of expansion. During his tenure, the chain grew from 1,500 to 8,000 stores. But there was another, even more compelling opportunity. The company was in the process of reforming the technology used to operate distribution centers.

Lewis had an idea: why not redesign the centers’ jobs in a way that they could be performed by people with disabilities? The inspiration came from a very personal experience: Lewis’ son Austin was born with autism. He had watched Austin’s difficult transition from school to workplace, aware of the high unemployment rate and the lack of challenging jobs available for people with disabilities.

Parenting an autistic child brought Lewis to a new level of awareness. As he tells it, “There is a whole world of people who are only six inches under water, but they are drowning. They can never get to the top of the applicant list because of others’ misconceptions.” And, he adds, while we think we know what it takes to do a certain job, our biases are often wrong.

Importantly, Lewis set several benchmarks for the effort: no additional expenditures, no difference in pay or performance standards. With this approach, the company would be “fair to shareholders and fair to our employees.” Presented in this manner, Lewis notes, his proposal “lit a fire” at Walgreens.

Major change can spark apprehension among those having to implement it. What if they failed? “One day we were discussing the idea of raising the height of a work surface. The engineer I was speaking with asked me, ‘Are we intentionally building this table for people with disabilities?’”

Lewis could have avoided the question, but he said “yes,” and the engineer understood. It was a “Rubicon moment,” as Lewis describes it. “If we failed, it would be the failure we would be most proud of.”

Reaching out

Each of Walgreens’ distribution centers connects with state and vocational rehabilitation agencies, with community-based disability organizations, and with schools to offer work-study programs. Other training is provided through TEACCH, a University of North Carolina program that helps those new to the teaching profession develop strategies that address the needs of various learners.

Insights from TEACCH, for example, led Walgreens to adopt touch screens allowing workers to respond to shapes instead of words. Also, since some have trouble with numbers, workstations were given names, rather than numbers.

The program is changing people’s lives. As part of building a new distribution center in southern California, the host city organized a training facility. One woman, who uses a walker, and her legally blind son, moved across the country to train for a year on their own time just to have the chance to apply. They now work in the Moreno Valley center.

Walgreens’ accomplishment is a lesson to businesses everywhere that the seemingly impossible can be achieved. In Lewis’ words, “Experience is overrated.” In 2005, the company set a stretch goal that the distribution centers’ disabled workforce would reach 10% within five years. While the recession threw off the timing by six months, Walgreens reached its objective by mid-2011.

Always ask

Lewis has learned about many physical and mental disabilities that he hadn’t known about previously. The people who work at the centers reflect the full spectrum — from cerebral palsy to mental retardation to quadriplegics.

The most important lesson he has learned is to let go of every preconception of what a disabled person can do: “You ask the person.” How about a deaf customer service representative? She is working in one of the centers and her colleagues love working with her. She performs via email and lip-reading.

Walgreens has built four new distribution centers designed from the ground up with the new technology. The locations are Jupiter, Florida; Waxahatchee, Texas; Perrysburg, Ohio; and Moreno Valley, California.

Lewis looked forward to leading tours and watching people’s perceptions change. “Visitors would look around for the disabled people and not see them. They just saw our people working.”

Lewis calls the program “the best work of my life.” And he reflects, “Deep down everyone wants to help somebody; they just need permission to do it.”