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Manage Problems: Rule the World

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, April 2, 2018
If you can train yourself and your staff to prevent the problems that are preventable and solve the problems you can’t prevent, you are well on your way toward a more enjoyable and fulfilling business and life.

 

My juvenile product industry odyssey started with having to face a huge problem. When I graduated from college in 1968, I was contemplating going to law school or business school but decided to take a year off before plunging back into academia. Needing to earn a little money to pay for burgers, dates, and rent, I took the path of least resistance and went to work for the family company—a modest-size baby product distributor called Kiddie Products. Turns out I arrived at a pivotal point in the company’s existence. Our customers, the early discount stores, had gotten so big that they didn’t need a distributor any more. They could buy big enough quantities to deal directly with the importer/manufacturers who were our suppliers and enjoy considerable savings in product cost. Of course, our suppliers were more than happy to accommodate them.

 

To his credit, my father saw the writing on the wall. Most of what we sold we were buying from importers sourcing their products in the Far East. So, in desperation, he decided that the company’s only hope was for him to travel to all the “countries of origin” and do to our suppliers what they were doing to us—bypass the middleman and go straight to the source. Unfortunately, he had limited knowledge of importing, injection molding, product design, packaging, or quality control.

 

Meanwhile, I had just finished sleepwalking through four years at a small, all male, New England liberal arts college and arrived on the office doorstep. Since my father was concerned about his lack of manufacturing expertise and was reluctant to travel to those alien lands alone, he asked me to go with him. I guess he thought my four years of Latin could come in handy. So off we went to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong on the first of many (for me not him) journeys to the Orient. Our mission was to knock off every product we were buying from the importers as quickly as possible. And that we did with great success—at least for a while.

 

As you can imagine, our profits on all those now directly imported products effectively doubled and our financial statements never looked better. So good in fact that, at the urging of his golf club buddies, my father decided to take the company public. By doing so he saw an opportunity to get the company out of hand to mouth mode and finally make some decent money after he and my mom had worked so hard to build the business.     

 

Soon thereafter, as happens in life and business, the euphoria was interrupted by another crisis. The FDA, which was responsible for the safety of children’s products at the time (pre-CPSC), decided to impose what I believe was the first ban of baby products ever. They issued a press release banning 28 products in one fell swoop—including a few of our knock-offs. Suddenly our little company was getting national attention in a not so flattering way.

 

Now I can’t explain why, but it was at this point that I had a life-changing epiphany. Rather than look at this turn of events as a business-threatening tragedy, to me it was an exciting opportunity. The FDA ban was not just a commentary on the quality of our products. It was a sweeping condemnation of the quality of infant “accessories and playthings” in general. Fueled by idealism, naiveté, and inexperience, I saw an opportunity to be a crusader for babies and their parents and create a safer, much higher quality product line. This is how The First Years brand was born. 

 

But now I had another problem. I was single, no babies, no knowledge of what was important to our consumer customers. How could I lead the effort to design superior products? They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, ignorance of vital information is the mother of learning. In college, I struggled to get myself motivated to study subjects whose relevance to my life was not clear. Now it was obvious what I needed to learn to accomplish my dream, and the sooner the better. We put an ad in the local paper to see if we could get expectant and new moms to meet with us in a local hotel to talk about their hopes, fears, and parenting practices. Much to our surprise, they came and they absolutely loved meeting other moms and sharing their thoughts. In all the years I attended our regular focus group sessions like this, I never failed to come away on an adrenalin high from some new insight or idea that could be implemented immediately. These early sessions eventually morphed into a nationwide online community of parents that we called The First Years Parents Council. It was an invaluable source of ongoing market research information that contributed enormously to our competitive advantage.

 

The moral of this story obviously is that while you should certainly try to do everything you can to prevent problems from occurring, sometimes problems can be the trigger for breakthroughs in thinking and action. The key is accepting the fact that, as a wise Chinese supplier of mine once said, “If there are no problems, there’s no business.” Then, see if you can get in the habit of looking for the hidden opportunities in every new problem that comes along. 

Next Steps

You can’t problem-solve or prevent reoccurrence if you don’t know the problem exists. Make sure your corporate culture encourages making problems and failures visible and acceptable.  You might also want to adopt and teach a company-wide problem-solving methodology.

 

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at sadams@jpma.org.

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