Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Outside the Lines

Have you ever watched a small child who was learning to craw go exploring?  They move about three to five feet, stop, look back to see if you are still there, and then take off again.  The more comfortable they become, the less they look back.  Somehow, many of us as adults, have lost that drive to “explore.”  Why?

Obviously, a young child doesn’t know when they are moving toward something that will cause discomfort.  Over time, they will learn, and become more selective about what to explore.  In any case, during the maturation period, they will lean toward exploring, and not worrying too much about discomfort.  They will grow up in a world riddled with rules, limits, and restrictions; even so, they will continuously test the rules.  By the time they are adults, they know where the lines are and have a predilection to stay within them.  –  Whoa, I better not go there.  It’s comfortable here.

From a business perspective, we need to operate more like an exploring child, than someone who lives within the lines.  Often the ‘fear of failure’ is the deciding factor in trying something new.  However, if you want to survive, you must go outside the lines.  And believe me, from a resource (time, people, and money) perspective, it is much better to choose to explore, than to be forced by outside forces to cross the lines.

While there are many processes that business owners use to play outside the lines, most can be narrowed down to a few simple steps.

  1. You must understand your comfort zone, AND why you are comfortable there. This is your first line to cross.
  2. Determine the best and worst-case possibilities for your journey. What is the best thing that can happen to your business and what is the worst thing that can happen to your business?  This is your second line to cross.
  3. Visualize what success looks like. This is more than a glossy picture, or sketch, of your business.  You must identify the most critical attributes of that visualization.  It’s like, being able to describe your (future) business to a new acquaintance.  Mentally, spend time there.  This is the third line to cross.
  4. At every step of the journey, you must capture the learning process.
    – What resources do you need? (time, people, and money)
       – What did you try? Did it work, or not work?  Why?
    – What competencies and capabilities are you building?  What are you going to
    need when you get there?
    – What is happening to your base business as you move along?
    –  In other words, craw three to five feet, stop, look back, and then take off again.

To create that future business, you must play outside the lines.  Successful businesses who succeed in this transition will be those that follow a plan that enables them to manage risks and seize opportunities along the way, while continuously pushing their organization forward.

It is an exciting journey; enjoy the trip.


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Maineville Manufacturing (FICT) was a medium size second generation company producing metal parts primarily for a handful of larger companies.  While competition was challenging, their long-standing reputation for quality and service usually placed them near the front of the line with their customers.  Like many privately held companies their supplier base, for the most part, had grown up with them.  One of their oldest suppliers (OS) was also a second generation business whose relationship was established by the founders of both companies.

After a long battle, Maineville Mfg., finally landed a large customer who needed a sophisticated component part for a new product.  The new customer would generate very good volume but with much smaller margins than Maineville Mfg. was accustomed.  They knew that they could build the capacity to produce the component part; however, it required a very high-quality precision fitting.  (The prototype component part was internally produced by Maineville at a very high cost, primarily the result of the precision fitting.)

Maineville Mfg. had identified two outside suppliers that could produce the precision fitting; one was highly recommended by the new customer.  Their only existing supplier that could produce the precision fitting was their long-time friend OS.  All three provided a good sample fitting during the development stage.

Maineville’s problem was that OS was excited about possibly being part of the new venture.  However, Maineville knew, based on experience, that OS might not be as reliable as the two outside suppliers.  Over the years, Maineville had developed internal quality control processes, at their expense, to occasionally catch and fine-tune parts received from OS.

Now that Maineville had landed this new customer, they had to lock in their precision fitting supplier.  The next step required Maineville, within sixty days, to produce a test batch of component parts, validate engineer processes and quality control standards, and confirm reliable sourcing relationships and specifications.

Which supplier should Maineville choose to produce the precision fitting, and why?  What did Maineville do?  What would you do?  — This might surprise you.  They worked with OS to put in place a rigorous quality control process at OS.  Their long-term relationship was that important to them.

Looking back, it would have been much better if Maineville had addressed the quality issues with OS when they first started, rather than covering for them over the years.  Don’t worry about “hurting feelings” when business issues are at hand.  Be respectful, be considerate, be understanding, be fair, but most of all be honest about the situation.

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Changing Time

What does a government shutdown look like in Washington DC the day after the vote?  This was my experience during the last shutdown.  I suspect it is about the same today.

Monday, September 30, 2013, the day our government shut down at midnight. I was fortunate to be in Washington D.C. the next morning to observe the impact of the shutdown. Listening to numerous news stations predicting the end of the world, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

On Tuesday, October 1st, I arrived by metro train at the Archives/Navy Memorial Station at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue around 9:30 am. Turning toward the Capitol, I stopped at the Newseum Center on Pennsylvania Ave. to scan some of the dozens of newspaper front pages from across the country they had displayed outside their building. Many had bold three-inch headlines such as SHUTDOWN! and Government Closes. I thought to myself, this can’t be good.

As expected, government buildings were closed, monuments barricaded or chained off, museums shut down, and security perimeters extended around the Capital and White House. Yet, the streets were crowed with tourists and lined with vendors. As I wandered along the Washington Mall, I observed news crews from around the world interviewing people. As you can imagine the ‘people’ blamed both Democrats and Republicans for our situation. What was telling though is that the international interviewers were really confused about what was going on in our country; their perspective ranged from the U.S. must be in big trouble, to our country is losing its mind. For the most part, when possible, tourists simply walked around barricades or stepped over chains to see the monuments. Nowhere was this more observable than at the Vietnam Wall Memorial where I helped to move a barricade.

Around 11:00 am I decided to get lunch at my favorite Washington restaurant, the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House. When I walked in I was surprised to see how crowded it was, especially the large bar area, which only had one seat left available. Tony the manager, a friend and fellow Marine, showed me to the seat; I ordered a sandwich. All of a sudden, shot glasses were placed in front of everyone at the bar except me. One man then lifted the shot glass and shouted “furlough” and everyone drank up. Apparently, the bar was filled with furloughed federal workers who had come in earlier to sign papers and then celebrate the shutdown. About fifteen minutes later another round of shots was distributed. Another person hoisted the shot glass and shouted “vacation” and the shots went down.

Later that afternoon I returned to Alexandria, Va., where I was told that many establishments had half-off drinks for furloughed workers; all-day happy hour for furloughed government workers! You even saw people wearing T-shirts with “Furloughed Fed” in bold red letters on the front.

Early on Thursday morning, I went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit my father’s grave. (Although, the Visitors Center was closed I have a pass to enter the cemetery.) While there I observed a handful of burials of military personnel who, I’m sure, would have never shut down on their job. Yet, our military personnel had commissaries and other facilities shut down on their bases. Why? Next I returned to downtown D.C. and talked to several more establishments about what they were seeing. The word “vacation” comes to mind.

My last stop was for a late lunch at a restaurant at 15th and E Streets and then a walk back down Pennsylvania Avenue to catch the metro at 9th Street; I missed the car/shooting incident by 30 to 40 minutes. Thank goodness the “essential federal employees” were at work even though they were not getting paid.  (Oh, our Congressmen and Senators were getting paid!)

Reflecting back on my initial perception of the Newseum headlines and what I actually observed, I wonder if anyone in Washington is connected to reality. More concerning, do they care? In the meantime, people and businesses in general are struggling to figure out how to cope with this political quagmire and its potential impact on our economy. So, what’s next?

On Saturday, October 5th, the House voted 407-0 to give retroactive pay to furloughed federal employees. Let’s do some more shots!!!

Hold that thought!

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Snow Storm Christmas tree

It was a cold winter night with snowflakes falling as big as quarters.  I was about five years old and was sitting on a sled being pulled by my grandfather through the streets of our small town along the Ohio river.  It had already snowed about six inches that day with no sign of letting up.  We were off to get our Christmas tree at the local market/store about four blocks away.

As I was being pulled through the streets I marveled at the beauty of the snow glistening in the night, houses decorated with Christmas lights, the smell of fireplaces, and the sound of the sled gliding through the snow.  What peacefulness.

Outside the store was a large area filled with rows of Christmas trees sitting in concrete blocks.  Around the perimeter were oil drums cut in half stuffed with burning firewood.  As my grandfather visited with some friends, I explored this man-made forest of giant trees, wandering aimlessly along make-believe trails.  Every now and then, the owner would walk among the trees shaking them to remove the heavy snow.  Of course, I would quickly dart to the tree to be smothered with the snow.  I think he shook the tree harder because I was standing next to it.  Tree after tree I got hammered with snow.  Then a dash to the fires to get warm.

The trip home was not as enjoyable as the ride up because I had to walk.  The Christmas tree occupied my spot on the sled.

My grandfather has been gone for many years, but each year about this time I recall this incredible journey as if it was yesterday.  Merry Christmas grandpa!  And, Happy Birthday – he was born on Christmas Day.

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Recently I observed a conversation between two business men where one individual was trying to sell the other.  It was obviously a first meeting.  Out-of-the-gate, the seller took an aggressive posture hell-bent on closing the deal.  He was dead in the water and didn’t know it because he violated some fundamental lessons that I learned many years ago when I worked for Dun & Bradstreet.  It turned out to be a short meeting.  What were the lessons?

Lesson 1.  Do your homework before the meeting.  Know everything you can about the company, its owner(s), markets, industry, etc.  This gives you a foundation to understand comments made about the business.

Lesson 2.  Get to know the person you are talking to.  Ask them about their company, what they do, what they make, who they sell to, their competition, etc.  Also, ask personal questions.  Tell me a little about you.  Why did you start your business?  What keeps you up at night?  Questions that promote insight and discovery.

Lesson 3.  Be very clear about your purpose for the meeting.  For example, ‘my purpose for meeting today is to take a little time in understanding your business and the issues you are facing to determine if my services/products can help you.’  Establish a constructive foundation for the dialogue.  You want to help the buyer see their issues from a different perspective.

Lesson 4.  Get the owner’s permission to ask certain questions.  For example, can I ask you about your biggest challenge today?  Would it be okay to talk a little about ……?  Establish a safe environment for dialogue.

Lesson 5.  Determine as quickly as possible whether your products/services can help the buyer.  Identify how you can help; be clear in your explanation.  Provide tactful suggestions.

Lesson 6.  Determine if the person you are talking to is the decision-maker for buying your products/services.  This includes having the authority to spend the funds.

Lesson 7.  Listen, listen, listen, listen from the perspective of Lessons 1 and 2.  Stay connected; don’t drift off into your own world.  Listening establishes the foundation for advanced discussion.

I can’t say for certain whether these lessons would have gotten him the sale.  But I am certain they would have gotten him the conversation.


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Last year, the Future of Jobs Report developed by the World Economic Forum identified the Top 10 Skills in 2020.  The top six were:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence

Finding this very interesting, I did some research to see if I could identify critical skills identified in 2007 to see what has changed in just ten years.  Here are a few:

  • Communication Skills
  • Honesty and Integrity
  • Strong Work Ethic
  • Computer Skills
  • Teamwork
  • Analytic Skills

While there is some connection between these two sets of skills, the change is telling.  Let’s look at a few:

Complex Problem Solving.  According to the World Economic Forum report, complex problem solving is defined “as the capacity needed to solve new, poorly defined problems in complex situations.”  It is the ability to solve real-time problems that are not clearly defined in a dynamic and complex world that cannot be addressed by routine actions.  Whoa!

Critical Thinking.  According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking is defined as “… that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it….”  The focus is on objectively analyzing a problem by assessing evidence (data), patterns, relationships, etc. in order to arrive at an informed decision.

While the skill definitions seem overwhelming, in the simplest of terms, both are ‘mind sets.’  It is how we think about the problems/opportunities we are facing.  In other words, recognizing that many of the problems/opportunities facing business are not only below the observed surface, they are also complex, dynamic, and often obscured by fuzzy signals.

Compare these two to the 2007 skills, which are important, and think about how we have been educating and training our workforce for the last ten years.  Interestingly, the number one challenge I hear from business owners is that they cannot find qualified workers.  So, how does someone acquire these skills?  How does a company even begin to interview for this talent?  Where does it begin?

It begins with the leadership of the company “challenging the conventional thinking” within the organization.  It is a new mind set; it is a culture.  The first step is recognizing you will often have to dig below the surface of the observed problem/opportunity in order to grasp the substance/complexity of what you are dealing with, ‘before’ applying resources (time, people, and money) to act on it.  The descriptions say it all, we live in a more challenging environment than we did just ten years ago that requires a different skill set to survive and prosper.  Your move.

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IMG_3029 (2)

Some years ago, I was having lunch with several representatives of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when the topic of “bad choices” made by teenagers, who ended up in the hospital, arose.  If you have raised a teenager, you can identify with this fear.  Unfortunately, the consequences of bad choices do not end with the teen years.

All of us come into this world at a given state that was determined by our parents.  We didn’t choose our parents, siblings, gender, religion, race, economic standard, color of our hair, etc., etc., etc.  And, thus begins our journey of choices.  As time passes, our choices plot our path in life.  The learning and development years are the most critical for establishing the foundation for how we make choices as adults, as it is during this period that we begin to understand the “risk-reward” trade-off.  Then, all of a sudden, we are adults.

Hopefully along the way we recognize that all choices have consequences.  Growing up it seemed that the consequences were easily recognized because as teenagers we played on the edge and the response was often quick.  As adults, we play in an arena where the consequences of our choices are often difficult to recognize, or more importantly, several steps removed from the decision.  I call this “the second and third order consequences” of decision-making. (https://thinkinthingsover.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/the-second-and-third-order-consequences-8/)

With the advent of the digital world, social media, a dynamic global economy that is wired like a circuit board, and fierce competition at all levels of our lives, all decisions/choices should matter because they ‘could’ have an impact on your ‘future.’  In effect, many everyday choices are no longer simple decisions.  Therefore, get in the habit of thinking about what might happen when you make a decision; beyond the desired result of the decision.  You will be surprised at what you will discover.  In the end, you will make better decisions.

By now you are probably wondering what the connection is between this post and my picture above.  It is a simple choice, what type of beer do I want.  Perhaps a Seasonal Lager.  Is there something else I should consider?  Price perhaps.  Ok, reasonably priced Seasonal Lager; got it.  A pint please! — How about, what is the ABV rating?

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