Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

Many years ago we had a shareholder who would visit from time to time to offer advice.  I valued these visits, though I’m not sure I always completely understood the counsel I received.  In particular, I was told on a periodic basis that I should “put it in a sock before I put it in the bag.”

I thought perhaps my shareholder friend, a native Norwegian who emigrated to America after WWII and made his fortune, was simply mistranslating some Old World advice. Maybe the word for “sock” in Norwegian was, well, I don’t know.  But not “sock.”

Anyway, he always said it in such a way, sort of with a wink, that I was embarrassed to inquire further.  I felt by asking I might violate some sacred code of the Sock and Bag Guild.

I was reminded of this advice the other day by none other than Peter Drucker, writing about people attempting to fix problems by innovating in all the wrong places.  

In the early 1950s, ocean-going freight was in big trouble.  Costs were rising, ports becoming congested, deliveries slowing and air freight looking better all the time.   The industry was innovating by trying to build faster vessels that required less fuel and smaller crews, all good ideas.

The game-saving innovation was launched quietly enough in April 1956 when a trucking entrepreneur placed 58 containers aboard a ship headed from New Jersey to Texas.  “Containers” means “big metal boxes.”  In took ten years, but in 1966 a Sea-Land ship carried the first international shipment of containers.  By 1975 vessels and ports were being built to accommodate thousands of big metal boxes.

We now think of this as “the container revolution.”  You might think of it as blueberries on your cereal in January, or maybe just an extraordinarily better standard of living.  It all came from metal-benders, guys who were losing jobs and prestige to technology innovators even as they were changing the world.

The secret to the innovation, of course, was decoupling two activities traditionally done serially but, with a simple metal box, now done in parallel.  While the ship was sailing, all of the packing could be done on land.  The result was ships spending 75% less time in port, a 60% reduction in shipping costs, and a five-fold increase in volume over three decades.  

There are some interesting lessons here.  Sometimes the simple solution has the greatest impact.  Low tech can rock.  Look to tough competitors (like truckers) for profitable solutions.  Never overlook process.  Peter Drucker is still worth reading.

The most important lesson for me, however, was finally making sense of my old shareholder’s advice.  Even though I was never, ever sure if I successfully “put it in a sock before I put it in the bag,”  I am now completely convinced that I should always “put it in a box before I put it in the boat.” 

Maybe that's what he meant all along.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Spare Me Your Vision

If you’ve ever launched a business, you’ve been faced with the task of writing a Vision statement and a Mission statement.  One does one thing, the other does another, and I can never keep the two straight in my head.  But I do know that having a clear idea of what the business should look like three or five years down the road--what I call the “end state,” which I can keep straight--is awfully important to running a successful enterprise.

Now, if you’ve ever run a business, and published a Vision and Mission statement to the team, you have undoubtedly run into this situation: Some consultant will meet your team, perhaps at an offsite training, and report back to you that, regretably, nobody but nobody knows the Mission and Vision of your company.

You can gnash your teeth and beat your breast, knowing that you have been diligent in spreading the gospel.  Maybe, however, there’s something else going on.

I’m a New England Patriots fan, and every Monday Coach Bill Belichick is interviewed on the radio about Sunday’s game.  Belichick is, without a doubt, the worst interview in sports.  He reveals nothing.  When the Patriots play badly he says, “We didn’t make enough plays to win.”  When they play well he says, “We made enough plays to win.”  If you are looking for some kind of erudite exposition of the game, you’ve come to the wrong interview.

But Belichick says something so often it’s almost humorous: “We just need people to do their job.”  It's a kind of mantra for him.  When his players are interviewed they will often deflect a question by saying “Coach just needs me to do my job.”

Just do your job.  That’s what one of the smartest, winningest coaches in the history of football tells his players: Just do your job.  Is there a game strategy?  Of course.  Belichek knows it, as do his coaches.  I assume he discusses it with his team during the week.  But he doesn’t ask his players to memorize the strategy, or be able to recite it.  That’s his job.  When he creates the game plan each week, that’s his job.  And, when his wide receiver runs five steps, cuts left and looks over his inside shoulder for the ball, that’s his wide receiver’s job.

Just do your job.  That’s how the Patriots win.

There’s a reason your team doesn’t know the Vision and Mission by heart: It doesn’t help them do their job.  I promise, if it did, they would know it cold.  It’s not that they don’t want to know it, of course, or be reminded, or recognize that they’re contributing to it.  They just don’t need it memorized to do their job.

In the mid-1980s I was managing cable TV properties in Illinois.  These were the go-go days of cable when we were opening up new neighborhoods and people were chasing the cable TV truck down the street hoping to schedule an installation.  One day I got into it with one of our key suppliers--their fault, no doubt--and they withheld shipment of some important material we needed for installs.  We went from dozens of happy new customers a day to none, and the phones began ringing off the hook.

Finally, on a Friday, I solved the problem and, in a show of support (or punishment, depending on your perspective), asked our management team to be in the warehouse bright and early on Saturday morning to help assemble product for the installers and get them on the road quickly for special weekend installs.

There we were, putting together installation packets, when Jeff, the Warehouse Manager came over.  “Thanks,” he said, “for helping out.”  I beamed.  What a great GM I was.  “But,” he added, “if you did your job, you wouldn’t have to do mine.”

That message stuck, big time.  (It’s 28 years later and I still remember.)

All of which is to say, if you are running a business, your job is Mission and Vision and End State.  Figure it out.  Make sure the team is working toward it.  Go ahead and sell it internally from time to time.  Do your job.

But your Customer Service Manager is supposed to make customers deliriously happy.  Let him do his job.  Your VP-Sales is supposed to sell tons of stuff.  Let her do her job. 

Mission and Vision have their place, but Bill Belichick is right.  One critical secret to success is simple: Just do your job.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Another Kind of Leadership

We've been reading a lot lately about Steve Jobs' leadership style, and for the last generation about guys like Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and even Donald Trump.  In most cases, the purpose of leadership appears to be about creating something useful, maybe beautiful, and inevitably profitable.

Last weekend I attended the girls cross-country banquet at our local regional high school.  The student population at the school is about 1,400.  When the girls run meets, they typically run against teams of 18-22 girls.  In some cases, more like 8-12.  A really big team would have 35 runners.

Our girls cross-country team this year had 127 runners.   They were all at the banquet whooping it up, singing, accepting varsity letters and gifts and saying unbelievably nice things about one another, their coaches and their parents.  And they were hugging.  (There's a lot more hugging in high school these days than there used to be when I attended.  In fact, this is how much hugging I remember: none.)  Today, female high school cross-country runners apparently hug all the time.

The coach of the team is in his 36th year.  There's something about what he does, the way he does it, and the way he inspires the team that attracts 5 or 6 times the number of girls that other, comparably-sized schools attract.  And for a sport that involves running long, hard distances one day, and hills another, and track workouts another, and a 6 a.m. Tuesday workout if you didn't beat your best time at the meet on Monday--these girls are unbelievably happy.

This coach will never be on the cover of Wired, or featured in Business Week.  We will never read about his "10 immutable rules of leadership."  He exercises a kind of leadership that isn't about profit.

But it's the kind of leadership of which, I am certain, we could use a lot more.

It turns out the girls won the state tournament in their division this year.   But even if they hadn't, you just needed to sit through a little bit of the banquet to know that it would have been a very good year anyway.