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Several years ago, UPS caused something of a stir in the world of business deliveries by announcing publicly that drivers’ routes would henceforth be designed to avoid left turns whenever possible, saving both time and money. The simple change—minimizing waits for signal lights to change and the virtual elimination of vehicle turns across oncoming traffic—was revolutionary.
It was also a bit misunderstood, if not controversial, at the time. The year was 2004. But, since then, computer-generated route mapping has become the norm, for individuals as well as for Fortune 500 companies. GPS positioning and computer technology that makes almost-instant analysis possible have made it so.
Since UPS embraced the “right turn only” directive, according to Myron Gray, president of U.S. operations, the company has saved millions of gallons of gas, reduced emissions equivalent to taking 5,000 cars off the road for a year, and become more efficient overall.
Gray notes that it’s all part of an ongoing effort, and he insists it begins with leadership. He also notes that leaders must look backward and to both sides if they are to be successful in their efforts to change the route ahead.
Maybe a lot if you’re in the construction business, or if you send employees to multiple sites during the business day, or even if you order office supplies that you need sooner rather than later.
But efficiencies in business—all kinds of business—have to do with taking a long, hard look at the way you do things as well as the way you did things in the past, understanding the whys in each case, and evaluating just how and why you want the future to be different.
The UPS right turn rule came about in an effort to make deliveries more efficient, and it was born through technology, an exhaustive algorithm that doesn’t dictate the “best” route to drivers but gives drivers a very efficient route, based on “millions of trillions of options.”
If your business is to have a future, you must look at a lot of variables.
Another technique is suggested by Stanford Professor Tina Seelig, who teaches innovation and creativity classes. She says that finding effective ways to innovate is simply the art of looking at situations from a fresh perspective.
That’s the essence of Gray’s message as well, and that’s what technology makes possible.
Today, both general population demographics and the composition of different age groups in business are in flux. There are more managers and executives nearing retirement age than ever before.
At the same time, however, a new crop of “aging entrepreneurs” are embarking on second, or even third, career paths. They have a firm footing in the past, and may still be wary of digital technology but are looking ahead with enthusiasm. The field has never been so filled with opportunity.
The percentage of younger workers is also higher than ever before and growing. Those innovators, managers, and business owners are comfortable with technology, but they still have some things to learn about the past. And although they have a vision of the future, it may still be cloudy.
They are more than willing to upend existing policies and procedures, find “scientific” new solutions, embrace change “just because,” and rock the boat because they can. They can still learn from those who have been around for awhile.
Generational differences and differing perceptions exist; they always have and probably always will. But what if UPS drivers were still making left hand turns? What if ancient cathedral builders had insisted on preserving the “old ways?”
On a construction site, there is no substitute for the efficiency of the “measure twice, cut once” rule. It reduces waste. But, just as nobody would return completely to the days of hand tools, digitized plans and real time technology reduce wasted time, and help ensure quality. Even traditionalists will embrace laser levels and SKU-based, computerized inventory control. Computer-based, real time record-keeping tools trump hastily scrawled notes on tattered blueprints and handwritten timesheet and progress reports.
One challenge for business, asserts Seelig, is to put aside the assumption that you should only look for “good ideas.” She occasionally challenges students to only consider “bad ideas,” with an eye toward turning them around. It’s an intellectual exercise, and it’s a really “good idea” to occasionally discuss seriously those wrong turns that a business can take.
No one disagrees that the way to succeed in business is to keep moving forward. However, the way forward is not normally a straight road. And, notes Gray, “Sometimes, you’ll have to go left. Sometimes you’ll have to take the long way around. What’s important is that leaders know where they’re going and keep moving to get there.”
If the current risk-inherent environment keeps you focused on present-day solutions, you’re missing the point, and missing out on future opportunities. You might be looking ahead, but maybe not far enough. And you might have forgotten the lessons of the past. There are many challenges in a changing world in addition to profitability.
The global economy, emerging markets, consumer demands, employee expectations and compensation, productivity and product liability, governmental regulation, health and safety—a lengthening list of concerns plays into every day-to-day business decision. Shifting demographics and ever-expanding technology are just a part of the wider picture.
The one thing that’s certain, as both Gray and Seelig emphasize, is that “turning right isn’t always right.” A business leader today must look forward and back, and also “sideways and up and down” before it’s possible to really understand where you are and where you’re going.