“Why do you cut the ends off the roast before putting it in the oven?” Rebecca asked her mother. “I don’t know,” replied her mom. “That’s just how we’ve always done it.”

That answer wasn’t good enough for Rebecca, so she went to her grandmother and asked the same question. Her discovery: Grandma’s pan was too small to fit the whole roast—which was not an issue with the pans at Rebecca’s house.

How often do we carry on with business practices that are less than optimal just because that’s “how it’s always been done”? We’re all guilty of this at some level.

A Larger Proverbial PanIndustrial Site

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to take over a failing business. It was in a tightly held, private industry sector dominated by a handful of large corporations and decades-old, family-owned enterprises. I was not welcomed in as a newcomer, to say the least. And I was young—a punk kid of just 30 years old who garnered zero respect in the container management community. Yet I was convinced I could dominate my marketplace. I just needed to look at this industry differently than others had over the prior 60 years or so the industry, in its current form, had existed.

Key #1: Vision

“That’s How We’ve Always Done It” could have been the theme song for this industry. There was talk of innovation at the national conventions, but all discussions seemed to lead back to a place of complacency and comfort. I knew there were better ways. Using my lack of knowledge of the industry as a point of strength, I pictured how I believed things could be done better.

My vision consisted of 3 key elements:

1. Dominate my service region by providing a superior product, on time, and always as promised. (This was not the norm in this industry.) When I saw this vision, it consisted of my company being the preferred provider in the region. Ultimately, it resulted in running two national competitors out of business in the region. Not bad.

2. Get my entire team to own their roles. You can’t build a business powerhouse without a fully dedicated team. And I’m not just talking about the management team. I’m talking about every team member. I envisioned a business in which everyone clearly understood and owned his or her role. This was a far cry from where the company was. (More on this in Part 2 of this series.)

3. Do away with “business as usual” by innovating in our management practices, production processes, product lines, and allied services we could add to our offerings. Nothing was passively accepted as “the way we do it” as we moved forward. Everything was questioned. Consistent tweaks were made, and results measured. In the end, we trimmed fat, increased output significantly, nearly eliminated defects, and brought a new practice and service to the industry that would prove to disrupt the status quo in a way I could not have imagined—even with my aggressive vision. (In Part 3 of this series, I’ll share how my innovations made my company seven times more profitable than the industry average, and the mob threat that accompanied my success. Stay tuned!)

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the following exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat speaks volumes as to the power of vision:

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where –”
Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Vision matters. Without it, our efforts cannot be maximized in reaching our desired outcome.

In my next installment of this series, I’ll share how I got my team on the same page, and skyrocketed productivity, output, sales, and on-time delivery of near-zero-defect products.

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Note: My use of the term “most profitable” in the title of this piece refers to the profits I achieved in this company as a percentage of revenues. I can make this claim because the industry association to which we belonged published industry average numbers for various benchmarks (and every company in the industry in the United States belonged to the association). The highest claims of profit margins of which I was aware were considerably lower than ours—our profits being some seven times the industry average.  I doubt my company was the most profitable in terms of dollars, however, as some of our competitors produced more product than we did, although at much lower profit margins.