It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You

Volume 132, No. 41  - Friday, April 11, 2008

Early in the 20th century, my father’s first cousin’s father was working his way through medical school in a research lab. Like many young medical students worldwide, his job was to inspect the petri dishes, those little round glass dishes filled with gel used to cultivate bacteria. When he found moldy ones he would throw them away.

My relative never won the Nobel prize. But Sir Alexander Fleming did. Bucking common practice and conventional wisdom, he stopped before throwing a mold ridden Petri dish away and asked himself, “if the mold on these dishes inhibits our ability to grow bacteria, maybe it can kill it as well.” The mold is called penicillin. The rest is history.

You may have noted that one of my favorite sayings is “change your glasses.” It implies that things are happening in front of our eyes, but we don’t see them because of pre-conceptions, old habits, social conventions, so-called “common sense,” or following conventional wisdom. To change your glasses is to change the way you look at things, to alter your consciousness, as it were, so the hidden can be revealed.

Vast amounts of potential profits are secreted away in plain sight, if we can change our glasses and see them. Profits that can be made without buying a cheaper ingredient, without cutting labor, even without increasing sales.

Let’s not mince words. In the 1950s, was the primary reason the US grew to dominate the world economy the superiority of our management? Hardly, I was alive during the era of three-martini lunches. Was it the lack of real competition? Every other industrialized nation was in ruins.

In the 1960s, we built planned obsolescence into our cars and marketed shelf-stable sliceable cheese, while our overseas competitors went out and built Mercedes, Toyota, Panasonic, Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari, and Cambozola. Each company listed, by the way, is from a country we vanquished in the war.

We talk in the cheese world a lot about our cheeses being the equals of the Europeans. While in a few cases, true, in very few cases are we as well run, efficient, and profitable as these worthy competitors, even in our own backyard. More than just focusing on the lucrative niches, they are more efficient at producing the products than we are.

If owners and managers, in our industry, could change their glasses they would see clearly the failings of modern management theory, what
I call industrial age management. Expressed in terms like “management by objectives,” based on misconceptions engendered by the kind of reductionist thinking that demotes everything to a numerical goal, there is nothing further from the truth than this pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo.

The offspring of Social Darwinism, the idea that we’re keepers of a sacred knowledge of how to do things, even with little real study or objective verification, is silly, and the idea those who work for us the rowdy masses is thinly disguised contempt.

This false conception is due to a failure to understand how the parts of the companies we run are inextricably linked together; that changing one thing always affects at least five others; and that lifelong learning, observation, understanding, improving the system of work, and long-term strategic planning yield sweeter fruit.

Problem is that we have done it one-way for so long we think it is the only way. Which explains why some companies bring an outsider like me, a consultant, to come in and help bring things into focus. We see things from another perspective, by definition, we wear different glasses.

Hidden profits are waiting for you to find them every day, so let’s get up off our duffs and figure out how to make the sum of the parts work together better, and you can’t do that in an office with a spreadsheet alone, you have to go where the work is done. (Hidden losses are things like duplicated work, excessive paperwork, redoing, overproduction, underproduction, lack of training, efforts put into solving things that only happen once in a while and little energy put into improving the system to solve things that happen every day, not doing the right thing at the right time, lack of maintenance, broken machines, no system for testing true effectiveness, collecting unneeded data, not collecting needed data, all due to lack of knowledge, training and understanding and short-term solutions based on emotions and more short term solutions based on infighting, and bad communication, among others.)

Pressuring workers, or rewarding those we think are doing better, and punishing those we think are doing worse, flies in the face of the fact that performance is dictated by the system, not by those that work in it. Exhortations, posters, motivational meetings break morale, and make even the least educated worker cynical. I have seen it with my own eyes.

There is no substitute for knowledge. False “controls” like perpetual inventory, don’t work, can’t work. Life is complex, everything varies, there is no such thing as zero defects, and it is a waste of time and money to try to model too closely. Approximation can yield more profits faster than any labor intensive, spreadsheet laden, desk-bound, office-based management directive.

In the supermarket business the magic is on the sales floor; in cheese, the make room, in sales, the moment of exchange between two people, so why spend so much time huddled in our cubicles, offices, or in meetings?

The truth is most companies manage themselves in spite of Management, and much of what Management does makes the work more difficult.

A simple experiment will give perspective. Make a flow chart of your company. Start with a line in the middle of the page. On the left, is where raw materials come in, on the right where they go to your consumers. Above put all the things management contributes, or demands. Below, put the different departments of your company, their functions and how they contribute to the delivered product. Diagram each, then draw lines to show how they are inter-related. It is one of the first things I do with clients, and still one of the most revealing.

You will see all kinds of inefficiencies, double work, connections that should be made, but aren’t, and if you are honest, at least a few ways in which the things above the line, the management things, divide, scare, are counterproductive, and disruptive.

If this truly is the first time you have done this, welcome to the 21st century. Post-Industrial management means doing your homework, getting yourself trained, then training others. Without knowledge of what to do, how can we expect to work to good effect?

Learn. Work the system. Improve long-term productivity, spend time on the work room floor. Cultivate people, processes and machines and encourage learning. Think about and plan for, then communicate with passion every day where the company is going five, 10, 15 years down the road. Optimize and communicate the why.

A method of doing things without a reason for doing them is an empty method. Take a deep breath, leave your paper-laden desk, and venture forth to find the vital profits hidden in the deepest recesses. •

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
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The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
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