Sharing Success

Conventional Wisdom

Mark Twain once wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It is what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I have made this type of mistake before. I was sure that I knew something was true and made decisions accordingly. Then I discovered that my original premise was flawed.

One of my examples: Many years ago, in our Fresh Pack tomato facility, we replaced a steel conveyor elevator with a plastic version because the salesperson convinced us that plastic would be gentler on the tomatoes, last longer, and require less maintenance.

The plastic conveyor broke in five days! My entire maintenance team became so “soured” on plastic conveyors that we vowed to never use one again.

Several years later, I saw a plastic conveyor working flawlessly in a similar application. I was surprised to learn that it had been working perfectly for TWICE as many years as our steel conveyors. I later learned that our original plastic belt conveyor had failed because we had installed it incorrectly. As a result of “what we knew for sure that just wasn’t so,” we had mistakenly avoided this technological upgrade for several years.

I have a restaurateur friend who explained to me that this same type of mistake happened to him.

He used to believe that few of his patrons wanted to order steak on Thursday nights. (He learned that “fact” from the previous owner.) As a result, he purposely kept his inventory of steaks low on Thursdays. He also patted himself on the back whenever he sold out of steak on a Thursday because, clearly, he had so accurately anticipated the evening’s demand.

Then one Thursday evening, the owner had to fill in for one of his servers who had called in sick at the last minute. To his surprise, instead of just a few customers ordering steak, many actually did. Given his “smart” inventory management (based on what he “knew for sure”), the kitchen predictably ran out of steak early.

As a result, he had to spend the rest of the evening explaining to disappointed steak lovers that their favorite menu item was unavailable. Clearly this was not the result he set out to accomplish!

How can we avoid this trap? By challenging CONVENTIONAL WISDOM.

“Plastic conveyor belts don’t work with our applications” and “people don’t order steak on Thursday night” are two examples of CONVENTIONAL WISDOM.

Conventional Wisdom is called that because at the time, it seems to make sense.

So, before accepting opinions as truth, think through every issue yourself.

1) Ask yourself, what are the biggest assumptions you make about how your business or customers are unique? What if, like my restaurateur friend, you are wrong about customer preferences? Learn to test your assumptions to better understand fact from fiction.

2) When it comes to potential new ideas, don’t be afraid to do what I call “What if” thinking. What if we implemented this new idea? What if we bought this new equipment? Thoroughly think through what this might entail, both good and bad. For possible bad outcomes, figure out your backup plan in advance.

3) Don’t undervalue missed opportunity. We all want to avoid making mistakes. However, the reality is that we often lose way more in missed opportunities (bigger sales, improved quality, greater profitability, higher customer satisfaction, better efficiency, less waste, higher growth, etc.) than we would really “risk” by trying new things.

4) If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. The only way to stay ahead of the competition is through continual improvement. That makes failing to try new things way more costly than failing the first few tries! So if an idea doesn’t work perfectly to start, just keep thinking of how to further improve your approach until you get it right!

Especially when it comes to improving our businesses, Conventional Wisdom can be one of our biggest hurdles, especially when “what we know for sure ain’t so!”