Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on June 27, 2022.
Leaders are frequently faced with difficult business problems which at first appear to be unsolvable. To address these problems, they need to break their paradigms—their established ways of approaching a problem—and to think outside the box. They need to create a corporate culture that encourages all employees to do the same.
I have written extensively on this subject and do so again due to its importance in accomplishing objectives not thought possible.
Doolittle raid over Tokyo
Following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered his military leaders to strike back by bombing Tokyo. In a dramatic re-creation in the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” these military leaders offer reasons why it can’t be done—the U.S. long-range bombers don’t have the necessary range from the nearest U.S. base on Midway Island and Russia won’t let the United States launch from Russian territory. Roosevelt says to them, “Do not tell me it can’t be done.”
What Roosevelt did was challenge the paradigms of his military leaders. It took the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare to come up with a solution to this challenge. He proposed that B-25 bombers be launched off an aircraft carrier that would sail within striking distance of Tokyo. After launch, the carrier would turn back, and after the bombing run, the planes would fly to China and land there.
This bombing mission over Tokyo is enshrined in history as the Doolittle Raid, named for Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who trained the pilots and led the bombing mission.
Building a new production plant that broke all paradigms
When I was the president of our company’s Canadian subsidiary, we wanted to economically justify a new production facility in western Canada. Strategically, we wanted to build the plant because it would open a new geography in a growing market for the company and protect that market from the entry of a competitor, but we needed a higher return on investment to get the board’s approval. We didn’t want to justify the plant just on a strategic basis, but on an economic basis as well.
When I told Paul Staley, the CEO of our company, that the internal rate of return of the project was insufficient to present to the board, he didn’t say, “Do not tell me it can’t be done.” Instead, he asked that every aspect of the plant design be reviewed with the goal of building the plant at a lower capital cost and running it at a lower operating cost.
This type of plant would normally be staffed by four people on a one-shift operation, led by a plant manager. Staley asked if it would be possible to reduce the capital cost by building a smaller plant to operate with a two-shift self-managed crew without a plant manager—one person on the first shift and one on the second shift. My response was, “So, you want a more-efficient plant built at lower capital cost run by fewer people and with no management? These objectives are mutually exclusive!” He just smiled and said, “Break your paradigms. I know you and your team can do this.”
Working with our engineering and plant-operations team, we broke every paradigm we ever had about this type of plant. Through brainstorming, out-of-the-box thinking and open dialogue, we reoriented equipment and scaled down the capacity of the plant to lower the initial capital investment. We left it expandable for if and when the demand justified additional capacity. We raised the qualifications of the operators hired to run the plant, ensuring they had the capability to self-manage.
After the plant design was revised and staffing reduced, the return on investment rose significantly, and we received board approval to build the plant. Because of its new design and the way it operated, it was the lowest cost plant of its type in the industry and became our company’s model for future plants of this type.
A competitor chose not to enter the geography because of our plant’s low-cost operation—they couldn’t match its low costs.
How do you create a paradigm-breaking mindset? I believe you need a catalyst and an initiative where existing paradigms can be challenged. For us, Staley served as that catalyst, and the initiative was the need for a new lower-cost design and staffing plan for this new plant.
You also need an organizational culture where the opinions of all employees on how to achieve breakthrough improvements are valued and the status quo can be questioned. The organization that accomplishes this will create competitive advantage.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.