It Pays To Break Away From Being A Creature Of Habit

We’re creatures of habit, most of us, and often formulate our going forward plans in increments from where we are instead of quantum leaps. Here’s why you need to change that line of thinking.

We know from karate that there is a better chance of breaking a board with a strike of your hand if you aim for a spot about 6” behind it. I specifically cite this as an example when characterizing long term goals. We’re creatures of habit, most of us, and often formulate our going forward plans in increments from where we are instead of quantum leaps. Aiming beyond the target can be very helpful in ‘freeing up colleagues’ minds when asking them to chart a course well into the future.

Three examples from one enterprise alone, all successful because of the drive, initiative and adventuresome spirit of the individuals and teams that pursued the goals:

• Dozens of pieces of operating equipment in a manufacturing plant and a perpetual focus on continuous improvement. In a casual conversation with the chief engineer, an exceptionally bright young man and the pace setter in continuing education, he asked me ‘Where do you see this all going?’ The answer, ‘One person/one machine.’ ‘Got it!’ was the reply; ‘We’re at 2.5 people per machine now and we want to find ways to get that down to one, right?’ ‘Not exactly’ was the response; ‘Picture one (big) machine and one person in a lab coat at a console producing what it takes dozens of machines to do today.’ Major smile from the chief engineer-his thought process was unconstrained from that day forward.

• A technology/equipment licensing agreement renewed for a second five-year period. It had originated when a foreign licensee sought to replace a similar agreement it had with a competitor, but for a lower-end product. A renewal beyond the second term was not in the cards. Unless there was something ‘new’ the licensee would likely argue that it had already ‘paid’ for the technology at least twice. Beginning of the end? What if a second technology could be developed and licensed in concert with the first which produced a higher quality/lower cost product than the one the licensor had displaced?  Code named ‘Binford,’ nearly three years later a cadre of great minds delivered, and the resulting expanded profitable technology agreement continues to this day.

• The COO concluded that nameplate capacity was well short of predicted three-year demand; short by about 30+%. His initial solution considered building additional production equipment, an expensive and time sensitive alternative but, with encouragement, he decided instead to explore adding capacity without adding more equipment. All who had ideas as to how to accomplish that goal were invited to share them in an open work session; more than 25 participants answered the call. In the end, dozens of productivity improvement projects were initiated including a move to a 24/7 production cycle, a break with a 25-year tradition. The capacity goal was exceeded, fixed costs were leveraged, and the bottom line smiled.

It’s easy to become creatures of habit in carrying out our responsibilities. While we deal with new information every day, we likely process it in much the same way…you know, well-rehearsed patterns that seem to work so well most of the time. As in the examples above though we will have our share of challenges some of which, like striking in karate, will be better met by aiming at a target beyond them than trying to hit the bullseye.

Call it what you will, thinking outside the box, championing a paradigm shift, breaking the mold; your willingness and skill in doing so and encouraging others to do the same are likely to keep you a step ahead! Lesson learned.

Read more: Two Characteristics of High Potential Leaders

Fred Engelfried: Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.