|It's a rare company that has a challenge so unique that it, or something very like it, hasn't already been faced by another organization.|
| Simple, effective solutions are waiting to be imitated but they're probably waiting within companies that provide products and services different from yours. |
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. It's also one of the fastest ways to increase profits.
Is your fullservice restaurant trying to improve some element of your business? Are you pursuing new marketing angles, menu offerings, opportunities to reduce transaction costs or better ways to provide customer service? Then avoid the common and costly mistake of inventing something new.
Picture yourself and your restaurant on one side of a giant canyon. You know where you are. You can also see all the way across the canyon to the spot where you and your operation want to be. How do you get from here to there?
While that question is a reasonable one that can lead you to start solving the problem, it may not get you where you want to be, and it probably won't get you there quickly.
People who understand the power of imitation take a different approach. When they create the same picture in their head, the question they want answered is not ìHow do we get from here to there?î but “Who has gotten there already and what method did they use?î
Finding imitable solutions for overcoming a particular challenge is relatively easy if you follow the five steps outlined here.
Step 1: Define the challenge.
To get your operation from one side of the canyon to the other, you need to know exactly where on the other side of the canyon you want to go. Without a clear understanding of your destination, you can't choose the best solution to imitate to get there. For example, if your restaurant is trying to reduce the amount of money it spends servicing each customer, it is critical to know specifically which aspect of “ servicing each customerî to evaluate. Are you addressingthe size of your wait staff, the speed at which your tables turn, or something else entirely?
Step 2: Define why you're facing the challenge.
Ask yourself why this challenge exists. Are you trying to reduce the time it takes to serve each customer because that is what your customers want? Are you doing it because then you can serve more customers? Defining “Whyî will help you find solutions to imitate and will keep you from imitating the wrong solutions.
Step 3: Believe someone has already overcome your challenge.
It's a rare company that has a challenge so unique that it, or something very like it, hasn't already been faced by another organization. Understanding and believing that solutions exist motivates people to find them.
Step 4: Look outside of your industry.
One of the larger obstacles to finding solutions is that operators often don't look for solutions outside of their own industry. Simple, effective solutions are waiting to be imitated but they're probably waiting within companies that provide products and services different from yours. Look past the products being provided into the processes that enable them to be sold and serviced.
An example of how companies have found solutions outside of their industries is self-checkout, a solution retail operations have borrowed from the banking and e-commerce industries. In an effort to reduce the costs related to serving customers, companies such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart have put self-service computers in the checkout areas of their stores. They let their customers scan, bag and pay for their purchases. In the same way that ATMs have enabled banks to trim the percustomer costs of basic services, this change has enabled Home Depot and Wal-Mart to dramatically reduce the cost of serving each customer.
Toll road operators have imitated a different solution to address a similar problem. Their solution involves selling or giving away small monitoring devices that go in drivers' automobiles. Each time the driver goes through a tollbooth, the tollbooth reads a signal from the device and records that the driver has passed. The toll is automatically applied to the credit card account number that the driver provided when he was given the device. This change has significantly reduced costs associated with manning tollbooths, obtaining and having cash on hand for providing change, and theft of proceeds. It also has dramatically increased the amount of customers each tollbooth can service per minute because drivers no longer have to wait in line to pay. As an incentive to get people to use this system, the toll operators actually charge a higher toll price to people who pay with money, which also increases profitability.
Who did the state highway department imitate to overcome the toll operation challenge? Interestingly enough, they imitated a methodology that the airlines have used for decades. Each commercial airliner has a device called a transponder. The transponder gives off a unique code that is used by air traffic controllers to track individual airplanes and to keep them apart at safe distances. The state highway depatment understood that the problem to be solved was how to keep track of the paths of individual cars. By looking for the solution to a similar situation outside of their industry and combining the transponder solution with one popularized by Internet retailers—the “no signature requiredî credit card transaction—the toll road operations people overcame their challenge and increased their profits. That leads us to the next step.
Step 5: Look for all solutions that can be imitated.
Have you ever noticed that when you buy a particular type of car you suddenly see all the cars on the road just like yours? It isn't that the manufacturer suddenly flooded the market with your type of automobile, it's just that once you bought your car, you became more aware of the other ones.
The same concept applies to noticing profit-boosting solutions you can imitate. Once you articulate your challenge (Step 1), determine why you want to overcome the challenge (Step 2), and believe that solutions exist and that they may exist outside your industry (Steps 3 and 4), you'll suddenly start to notice solutions everywhere around you. You'll become aware of all kinds of ideas, processes, methodologies, and technologies that you can imitate within your organization. A trip to the mall, filling up at the gas station or dropping off a video rental will become fertile ground for finding profitboosting solutions. Take note of what they are and figure out how you can imitate them to boost profits in your operation.
John Strelecky, author of The Why Are You Here Cafè, is a nationally recognized speaker on Creating The Perfect Company. He served as a business strategist for several Fortune 500 companies, and co-founded the business philosophy practice at Morningstar Consulting Group LLC. Visit www.whycafe.com or call him at 407-342-4181.