Historically a tool had to have moving parts in order to be a machine. Complex business systems can have a lot of moving parts. And for smaller organizations, leaders often find themselves as a key cog in the machine. It’s very difficult to work on the machine when you are still an integral part of it. But as you grow you have to find ways to remove yourself from the system so you can be a mechanic.
Our business model today is fairly complex. If you looked under the hood it looks something like this. We start by sourcing birch logs from Lithuania. Those logs are loaded on a Korean ship and head to the Northeastern Chinese port of Dalian. There they travel by truck to a processing facility. While this is going on we are also buying white oak logs in France stuffing them into a container to be shipped by Danish vessel to the same facility.
The design team in the US makes prototype samples for new product designs and sends them along with the design team to the facility in China to meet the raw materials. In China, we begin manufacturing the birch logs into veneer on machinery made in Taiwan. We process the white oak logs into thick veneer on Austrian frame saws. We then laminate the two types of veneer together using Japanese manufacturing adhesive to make a piece called a blank. We then mill the blank on German molders to have a tongue and groove fit. Next we apply Belgian reactive stains to color the face of the planks and then finish them on Taiwanese finishing lines. Lastly we package the product, brand it and pack it back into a container and load it onto another Korean vessel bound for Los Angeles. In Los Angeles the container is loaded onto a train and brought to Memphis where it is brought by truck to a small town in Missouri. From there it gets shipped to flooring stores all over the US.
But I can clearly remember the days when I was the only employee of the company and I can remember making the decision to ship the first load of lumber. I was terrified not only because I didn’t know exactly how to get the process started but also because I didn’t know if the manufacturing partner could be trusted. It took a lot of faith plus trial and error. Sometimes in small businesses it’s hard to work on the machine because as the leader you are still a cog and you haven’t figured out yet how to remove yourself from the day to day so you can actually analyze, admire, inspect, tinker with, or tweak the machine. But as you grow as an organization you have to find increasing amounts of time to work on the business. Which means you will have to train people you can trust to manage more and more tasks so that you can work on the process rather than just be a cog. Finding the time, even if it’s just 30-60 minutes each week to step out of the day to day and think big picture is absolutely critical if you have aspirations to grow. Otherwise the machine is limited to what you as the leader can churn out, and once your time and talents are maxed out, so is the organization.
Several years ago we were buying a specific product from a vendor named Carlsons Wood Products. It just so happened a few years later that we started making some of our own products that were in that same product segment. One day I called Carlsons to place an order and to my dismay the sales manager said “we’ve closed your account and are no longer interested in selling to your company”. When I inquired what had occurred that caused them to make that decision the manager referenced the fact that we were now making some similar products and they had no interest in selling to a competitor. The interesting thing about this was the products were similar but not the same and in fact there was little cross-over between the two as they had pretty distinct markets and clients. After trying to convince the manager that this was unnecessary, he held firm and restated their intention of ending our relationship.
Several years passed and I was sitting at a manufacturer’s conference at our annual tradeshow. A very nice gentleman sat down at the table beside me and we began exchanging pleasantries. When he got around to asking me which company I represented he was a bit shocked when he realized I was his perceived competition. When I realized he was the owner of Carlsons I proceeded to unpack our past experience with his now former sales manager and expressed an interest in re-establishing our business relationship. He was a bit taken aback and was curious why we would be interested in buying products from him. Once I explained the subtle but very distinguishing elements he said he’d be glad to start our relationship over again. Now understanding the product differences he asked if we would be willing to reciprocate and sell them the product we were making. I told him we’d be glad to do that. Soon after we were back to buying from them and within 12 short months they had climbed the ranks to become our third largest customer.
I think too often in business we lock ourselves into an adversarial mindset that can keep us from discovering some of the most strategic partnerships. Some of your largest clients might be disguised as the competition.
If you look up the word success in a dictionary you’ll find a couple of different definitions. The first definition will say success is “the attainment of popularity of profit” and I think that is generally the definition most of us have in mind when we talk about successful businesses. But for that to be true, the main aim or purpose for a business venture would be profitability. And while all businesses must generate a profit in order to exist over the long-term, profitability, as a goal is incredibly short-sighted. I think that profitability is a byproduct of fulfilling your purpose and as such, doing the hard work of figuring out what we were made to accomplish and then setting about achieving that task is a much better definition of success. In fact that is the other definition you’ll find when you look in the dictionary “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. As business leaders, we need to do the hard work of re-framing our thinking when it comes to success. So rather than asking what the bottom line looks like, we should be asking what are you called to do and how well are you doing at accomplishing that calling through your business?
Our company has a purpose that is not directly tied to what we do everyday. We design and manufacture wood flooring but our purpose has to do with orphan care throughout the world. A colleague once asked me, “if you are really focused on the orphan care work, why don’t you quit the wood business and do that full-time?”. But my response is why can’t I do both? Does one really detract from the other or does it greatly enhance the other. I can tell you, that in the last few years since we’ve found, focused on and followed our purpose it has greatly impacted our business in a number of ways. It’s made us better at what we do. And while it isn’t an easy question to answer, it will greatly impact your business as well.