How many times have you seen your competitor or other businesses in your area copy what you produce or offer? Maybe it is the kind of company that takes a photo of some trusses, puts themselves in front of it, and says, “Look at me, I am the same kind of company they are.” Flattery is great, but is it accurate? Are they the same kind of company? Have they really distinguished themselves enough to say they have the same experience and knowledge you do? While you can’t control their actions, this presents a great opportunity to analyze your own. It’s time to look at what you’re doing, figure out why you’re a market leader, and capitalize on what makes you different.
We have all heard the phrase “out-of-the-box thinking,” but many of us find ourselves trapped in the box or settle for what is in the box. The recent series I wrote on TIMWOODS, or even last month’s article on Disruptors, stirs most people to make changes, to begin a journey of either continuous improvement to better service, quality, efficiency, or to provide new services or products to your customers. What I often find is owners/managers/supervisors stuck doing things the same way they always have. It is their comfort zone. Often our teams say they should be “thinking outside the box”— but, if you’re in the box, maybe you should turn this around and find ways to break through from inside the box.
When it comes to boxes, there will always be some that define our reality. For lumber yards, component plants, and millwork operations, a 2×4 is just that, a 2×4. Though there are lots of other materials out there that we work with, it is that stick of wood we are still dealing with—our box.
Now imagine sitting with your team (or at a standing meeting) where you have asked them to invent a new idea for the business in the next 20 minutes. Because it is so broad, most people will give up without trying. Instead, change the question. Ask: what does service, our customer, and delivery have in common? This will spark an entirely different conversation and should allow you to focus, in this case, on how we improve the process of delivering product to our customer. The same is true that, in many companies, leaders will try to be the only one who comes up with an idea for the future, or for change in process. Focusing our team on how to tackle these questions will bring out new ideas with differing views
Recently the Pastor at our church has been teaching from Nehemiah; his approach is from the perspective that Nehemiah saw a problem and wanted to address it and rally the people around the action to correct it. At the same time, I have been reading a book on vision for leaders by several authors. In it, they also refer to the book of Nehemiah and talk about Vision and the importance it plays in addressing the situation. Two different approaches, but one common goal—to improve upon the situation that exists.
If your competitors are copying what you are doing, find a way to distinguish yourself, especially in areas where they cannot compete. Break through ideas from within the box can be accomplished, and what follows are a few ideas on how to do that.
Ask Questions That Are Relevant
Asking the right question can help guide your team to valuable ideas, even ones that are overlooked. This can lead to new product ideas or a new way of providing service to your customer.
Who uses our product in ways we did not expect? – A question like this explores unexpected successes with your product. We do not always see how a product shipped in raw form is used in the field. Asking a question like this will also get our sales, delivery, and design teams to visit the customer in the field and discover how our product is used, and we also might see opportunities to address additional issues that we could solve.
How are we using technology to our advantage? – Between software, equipment, and advanced framing techniques, we have a lot at our disposal. But this could include training too. When was the last time you provided a lunch and learn for your customer? Need a topic? There are numerous educational topics on the SBCA industry website. Just go to the SBCA Topical Library and find something that you can use to increase the knowledge of your customer, and in turn increase sales opportunities.
What breakthrough in efficiency or effectiveness have you experienced? – So many times we look at or buy advanced manufacturing equipment or a different design in forklift, but we do not follow through to see we are getting the gain we expected. The question may prompt you to look at a new piece of equipment, or maybe you need a Lean Manufacturing tune-up from an expert like myself.
Focus the Process
You want this inside-the-box brainstorming to be consistent with how we actually think and work together.
Hone in on what constitutes a good idea – You might define how much money can be spent on the idea, or the level of staffing the company can commit, and when you would like to see a payback.
Refrain from relying on one brainstorming session – You have to keep ideas flowing. Much like Lean 5S or the Continuous Improvement process where you can use your huddle as a mechanism to constantly gather ideas for improvement, you may want to have several sessions to elicit more ideas and formulate proposals.
Pick the right team members who can produce insight – Associates who have firsthand knowledge of service or how a product is used or manufactured will have more to contribute than others who have limited knowledge. You may even bring in outside people who can supplement the meeting or those who have direct experience, such as a consultant like myself.
No idea is a bad idea – Remember that every idea may have that nugget that could provide the spark you need. Get the ideas up on a board or your tablet whiteboard.
Most of all, never forget human nature provides that most people do not like change. It may take time to lead your team to inside-the-box thinking, but you want to encourage and get your team to think about how your company is going to be different than XYZ down the street. And not just different, but delivering that product or service only your company can provide.
Best Practice Tip
Last month, my friend Glenn Traylor wrote about the importance of good plate embedment in Component Advertiser. I see this often and have worked with Glenn in his role as a TPI inspector to help companies implement an improved Quality Control program using SBCA QC. Now is the time, before we get our spring rush, to implement the SBCA QC program in your operation. You will see benefits not only in embedment or plate placement, but ultimately in what you deliver to your customer. Take the time now to contact the SBCA team and they will help you get going.
Ben Hershey is CEO of 4Ward Consulting Group, LLC, the leading provider of Management and Manufacturing Consulting to the Structural Component and Lumber Industry. A Past President of SBCA, he has owned and managed several manufacturing and distribution companies and is Six Sigma Black Belt Certified. Ben has provided consulting to hundreds of Component Manufacturers, Lumber Dealers, and Millwork Operations in the past seven years. He is the expert the industry turns to when they need assistance. You can reach Ben at ben@4WardConsult.com or 623-512-6770.
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