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This past fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began to tell the tale of how the Dirty Maple Flooring Company came to embrace the Digital Age through the practice of collaborative innovation. The latest episode appears below. Readers may navigate the full series here.
Charlie Bangbang held many, many roles at the Dirty Maple Flooring Company. He started during his summer breaks from college as an installer, which gave him a fine, ground-level appreciation for how the company’s contractor customers adjudged flooring and how their clients—homeowners, mostly—appraised the wide variety of surfaces.
The last set of kneepads from those summers hang dusty on a peg board above the workbench in the basement of Charlie’s house.
Later in his career, Charlie made his way to the mills, where he directed timber through the North gate and milled planking out the South exit. He knew Maple’s business backwards and forwards. A gregarious man, his way with people helped him remain close to all the friends he made traversing the company’s supply chain. His pool parties became a summer tradition.
A couple years ago, when Maple crossed the line from being a company with hundreds of millions of dollars of sales to the low billions, the board of directors—all of whom knew Charlie and liked him—decided that having another seasoned hand at the tiller at their increasingly large, global ship might not be such a bad idea.
The board named Charlie the head of strategic planning and made him part of the executive team. Charlie was thrilled. He was where he had always hoped he would land at Maple.
One of Mr. Bangbang’s main duties was to oversee the annual strategic planning process at Maple. He would work closely with the chief financial officer (CFO) in helping the organization define its intent for the coming years in terms of vision and the financial plan that would give the company space to pursue it.
Charlie and the CFO, Frankie Wilson, went back seventeen years. They first worked together at Maple’s mill in Mount Caca, Wisconsin, where Frankie served as office manager. Their relation was cordial, if not exactly friendly—certainly not as friendly as the relationship Charlie enjoyed with the CEO and other board members. People failed to connect at times. Charlie was wise enough to know not to push. He respected that Frankie understood Maple’s balance sheet better than anyone else in the company.
Charlie and Frankie retired to the Wellington Arms, a nice, quiet bar across the street from Maple’s headquarters, to plan their attack for the fall, when the executive team started planning for the new fiscal year in January.
The Wellington, a long-time hangout of Maple employees, was a gentleman’s bar in the good sense of the phrase. The proprietors Ann and Casey Muldoon never saw fit to install the big screen televisions that have turned the patrons of newer places into dull misanthropes. One could carry on an adult conversation in peace. Frankie received the occasional, appreciative stare, but nothing more. It was possible to leave the bar in a better state than when one entered.
Charlie, the more recently minted executive of the two, opened with deference, “So, Frankie, I appreciate you coming out with me to talk shop about the planning. How do you want to play it this time?”
Frankie eyed Casey. He waddled to their booth to confirm their usual drinks: an Old Fashioned with Old Fitzgerald and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Frankie knew that Ann knew how to keep the wine chilled right.
“To be honest, Charlie, I’m looking forward to this year’s cycle as much as a sand paper enema,” Frankie offered. Her language, never refined, had become earthy from having worked at the mill for years. Charlie wondered if the mill left the wood polished and the people coarser as some kind of metaphysical quid pro quo.
“I hear you.” Charlie squirmed, relieving a fart into the green naugahyde seat cover. “What’s on your mind?”
“I’m thinking about this time last year,” Frankie said. “You know, I busted a hump developing a capital budget for those idiots down at the plant who assumed slow and steady growth when we got anything but that, as you know. Our ability to plan anything beyond where to have lunch seems to have flown out the window.”
Charlie nodded. This business, like a lot, he supposed, rose or fell on a couple key decisions. Get them right and the wheels could fall off the rest and they would still be okay. Get them wrong and you had no prayer, no matter what you did later. The experienced people in the company knew this to be true.
“I am tired—tired—of putting my office’s stamp of approval on what people make up by way of their demand forecasts. Our accuracy stinks. We spend the first and second quarters remaking the plans the board just approved, making us all look dumb. I ask myself, ‘Why plan at all?’”
Charlie, laconic, nodded again. For as grounded in reality Maple seemed to be, Charlie knew that most the company’s general managers wanted nothing more than to join the 10% club: ten percent improvement in sales and 10 percent improvement in gross margins, year over year, until retirement. The estimates they submitted reflected this aspiration more so than reality, most years.
As Maple grew, the future seemed increasingly harder to predict. Charlie knew that, sitting in Milwaukee, he had no idea what was happening at that very moment at their client’s showrooms in Buenos Aires or in Stuttgart. Did homeowners there like their products? Like them enough to order them?
“Where’s the source of the problem?” Charlie asked.
“It’s the sales estimates,” Frankie replied. “The sales estimates by product line. The cabinetry line, in particular, of late. The initial estimate gets padded a bit as it floats up the chain of command until, when you do the initial scan, you learn that we’re set to be a two billion dollar company next year. It’s enough to make me want to return to Mount Caca to pick up making up the plant maintenance budgets.”
Charlie sipped his Old Fashioned. The bourbon put him in a contemplative mood. The sweetness made him optimistic for no reason in particular.
“Look Frankie,” Charlie started, choosing his words slowly and carefully, “I may have a way out this Chinese finger trap.”
“Well, smell me, Mr. Charlie, do tell?” Frankie offered. She touched the film of condensation that had formed on her glass, wetting her index finger.
“Have you ever heard of collaborative innovation? The wisdom of the crowds?”
About the author
Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations big and small navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by developing approaches, creating forums, and structuring engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the process and ideas that result.
As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).
Today, Doug works at social innovation leader Spigit, where he consults with clients such as BECU, Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Ryder System and the U.S. Postal Service. Doug helps them to realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.