A Workday with David Lee

A Workday With David Lee, ’11

With 450,000 employees across 126 countries, can UPS be just as innovative as Silicon Valley’s most disruptive startups?

As the vice president of innovation and UPS ventures at Atlanta-based United Parcel Service, David Lee, ’11, helps one of the world’s largest logistics companies think like a startup. He doesn’t fear a robot-filled future. Robots can have the boring jobs, according to Lee. Humans have more important creative and problem-solving work to do.

Lee believes anyone can bring forth game-changing products and technologies, no matter his or her job title. He even gave a TED Talk (which has 1.6 million views and counting) on the topic. Here’s how Lee inspires innovation at UPS throughout a typical workday.

6:30 AM Almost every morning starts with a little bit of play. I read stories, joke, and cuddle with my 2-year-old and 5-year-old. Mornings can be disorganized, but I cherish this time with my kids.

A Workday with David Lee Lee's current reading list includes Change by Design by Tim Brown.

7:30 AM During my commute, I’ve been listening to Change by Design by Tim Brown. I’m really inspired by the idea that fostering better design methods leads to organizations that are better at listening, collaborating, and learning.

8:15 AM I check the emails that have been flying around since 6 a.m. I reserve the beginning and end of the day for email.

9:15 AM Today’s first meeting is with a new, machine-learning team that we are building. We are trying to apply new technologies to solve problems such as predicting delivery times in Europe or identifying the movement of dangerous goods in our network. We discuss the feasibility of a few other interesting possibilities recently brought to us by other internal UPS teams.

We are digging into problems worth solving, and we hope to invent something new together.

David Lee

10:30 AM Next is a meeting about a new project that is just finding its feet. We try to operate in an agile fashion with self-describing project artifacts. I can’t stand status meetings. But I’m for learning-and-exploration meetings that bring teams together to learn from each other. Here we have two teams working on separate projects that use similar technologies, and we talk about the potential to borrow from the mental superpowers on each team.

NOON I head to the cafeteria for lunch. I try to eat with different people as much as possible. This is a great way to meet people in different roles.

1 PM This next meeting is a phone call with a San Francisco–based startup. I meet with so many amazingly bright engineers who aren’t aware of the operating business problems that exist outside of Silicon Valley. They’re often surprised to learn that a concept that may have limited appeal in a consumer market is worth millions in the industrial space.

2:30 PM The theme of today’s last meeting is co-innovation. We spend time talking with people from a customer firm, exploring problems of high interest to them. We are digging into problems worth solving, and we hope to invent something new together. Facilitating partnership is a large part of my day-to-day activities.

3:30 PM I take a quick call with a member of our organizational design team. Part of my role is to help bring new ways of thinking to UPS, so we talk about modern philosophies for innovation and bringing that language and energy to a new program they are designing.

4 PM There’s a small window of nonmeeting time, so I work on preparing for an upcoming talk I’ve been asked to give. I will be talking about the new world of machine learning and artificial intelligence and how legacy companies should be evolving to make the most of it.

4:30 PM On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m out the door at 4:30 p.m. There’s no budging on this. My calendar is blocked off because on these days I pick up the kids from school. Even though it makes me nervous to leave early while others are still hard at work, it’s too important not to. I work late the other nights.

A Workday with David Lee Story time with Lee's two young children is a highlight of his day. Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town is a current favorite.

5:30 PM I like to take the boys out to eat. It’s always somewhere most parents would consider terrible. Our favorites are Waffle House, Steak ’n Shake, and Chick-fil-A. As they grow up, I know they won’t want to hang out with me forever. So these meals are really special.

8 PM Back at home, it’s time for baths and books. My wife is a historian and a professor, so we have a wide range of interesting books around the house. Both kids are into a classic, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town right now. They love finding Lowly Worm!

10 PM Lights out, and I’m exhausted. But when every day is a bit of a surprise, that’s when you’ve found meaningful work. I feel really lucky that this is my life.

—As told to Betsy Mikel