Caution – Comfort Zones Ahead

By Tom Dossenbach

We as human beings share a common desire to be comfortable in life. We strive to live without conflict, stress, or controversy and — when given a choice — most often choose the road that avoids such unpleasantries. When confronted with unpleasant situations at home, socially or at work, we usually calculate our actions in order to avoid stress in our lives. Many times it is more convenient to just ignore challenges in hope that somehow they will work themselves out. Sometimes they do.

The Four Comfort Zones of Change
The more your comfort zone is on the top half of the chart and to the right — the more effective you are in contributing to the success of your company. On the other hand, the further your comfort zone is to the bottom half of the chart and to the left — the greater detriment you will be to your company.  

However, what most of us have found as we have gained experience in life, is that more often than not, ignoring difficult circumstances creates much more serious challenges. This applies to interpersonal relationships and to business management in our woodworking companies.

Why do we try to avoid or altogether ignore these unpleasant circumstances?

It is because confronting them necessitates some form of change, and change entails risks of the unknown. Change removes us from the confines of the familiar, the safe and the comfortable. It takes us out of our comfort zone.

Everyone has their own comfort zone in different circumstances in life and work. I am no exception. As I write this article, I am on a plane returning from Asia. I do not want to miss my connection in Chicago, nor do I want to arrive in North Carolina without my luggage or my work records. For fear of this, I have my important documents with me. My comfort zone during travel is to keep everything I can in the cabin with me and to not trust the baggage handlers. I do not plan to change this policy.

Every manager and supervisor has his or her own comfort zone at work. In fact, the leadership and management in every company set the comfort zone as part of the corporate spirit of their company. Those who are successful in our woodworking industries are careful in setting these comfort zones.

The Four Comfort Zones

There are four comfort zones that companies and individuals have to choose from. These are: Past Performer, Reactive Change, Trend Follower and Proactive Change. The chart on this page is divided into these four comfort zones. Notice that there is a (+) in the top right corner of the grid and a (–) in the bottom left corner. The two zones in the top half of the chart are positive and the two at the bottom are negative.

The more your comfort zone is on the top half of the chart and to the right — the more effective you are in contributing to the success of your company. On the other hand, the further your comfort zone is to the bottom half of the chart and to the left — the greater detriment you will be to your company.

Past-Performer Zone

Of the four comfort zones, this is the most lethal to an individual or a company. The Past Performer Zone is filled with people who look to the past as justification for maintaining the status quo. Some actually live in the past in a trance of sorts enthralled by their successes of yesteryear. They have slipped into a mode of complacency and are infected with the Titanic Syndrome — thinking they are invincible. (See December 1999, January 2000 W&WP.)

Those in this most negative of comfort zones could be represented by a small cabinet door manufacturer that is serving the local market and feels its quality and service will ensure the company a continual stream of orders. There is no need to change how the company has done business for the past 20 years because the company has prospered on the average.

Companies like this perceive lean manufacturing and continuous improvement as fads and just for big companies like Toyota or General Electric or maybe a large furniture manufacturer. Thus, this company continues to drift with the tide not realizing that there are many icebergs in the water that can sink the company if struck.

All too often I see companies, managers and supervisors in this comfort zone and I consider it suicidal of them all. Just over a year ago, an office furniture manufacturer in North Carolina that had prospered for over 90 years folded because management lingered in this zone too long.

Reactive-Change Zone

The second comfort zone below the line in our chart is what I call the Reactive Change Zone. This is slightly removed from the previous negative zone but remains crippling to a company. A company or individual in this area of the chart looks at each day as having enough challenges without taking on any new projects such as how to cut costs in the panel line.

A company in the Reactive Zone has a regiment of firefighters ready to jump on any challenges the company faces. It matters not if it is a machine breakdown or the sudden loss of its largest customer; the fire squad extinguishes the fires for that day.

Typically those in this zone do not have the time to look into cellular manufacturing or for alternative wood species or new finishing materials because they are too busy putting out fires. There just isn’t time for those types of things. After all, this is the real world and there are just not enough hours in the day.

An individual working in this comfort zone is creating stress for everyone else because they go from calm to crisis with the ring of the telephone. Living in a corporate environment like this is not what we want in our careers. Unfortunately, when reaction to crisis problems is the driving force for activity, there is seldom a creative element in the solutions.

Trend-Follower Zone

Give credit where credit is due. Trend Followers recognize that there are other companies in the woodworking industry that have found new and even innovative ways to compete in the marketplace. Those in this zone will emulate the successes of others and implement change initiatives of their own to make their companies stronger. Thus, we place this group above the line into the positive (+) half of the Comfort Zone chart.

Those individuals and companies in this zone accept change as necessary, as long as it is proven to be a good idea by others. Therefore, strategies that are proving successful by competition are evaluated and often adapted for internal use. There is nothing wrong with this comfort zone and many companies are successful residing here.

Many large and small companies with limited resources can leverage the success of others by keeping up with what is going on in the industry and adopting the best in order to remain successful. As long as the change is made continually and rapidly, this can be a strategy for success.

Hopefully, you will visit IWF 2002 and will bring a lot of good ideas back to your company.

Proactive-Change Zone

We finally get to the winning comfort zone – Proactive Change. Those who dwell in this comfort zone are full-time change agents who see change as necessary and good for the company. They are aware of the global and local competitive environment of today and are constantly looking for innovative ways to change their way of operating in order to meet the new challenges just over the horizon.

These companies may slip in and out of some of the other zones from time to time but generally remain committed to positive continuous improvement and change — change that is proactive and fearless. Individuals and companies in this comfort zone are constantly questioning their operations and looking for better ways to do every job in the company. In addition, they are looking for ways to make changes to eliminate the waste throughout their company.

Imports ranked as the top concern in the 14th annual residential furniture survey of this publication in the June issue. The comfort zones that each of the survey respondents are dwelling in will determine how they handle this and other challenges. Imports are not the only cause for plant closings in the woodworking industry today, and how one prepares for the future will determine his or her longevity in our industry.

Where Is Your Comfort Zone?

In which of the four comfort zones are you most comfortable or spend most of your time? Are you constantly striving for positive change or are you living in the past? Are you always reacting to a crisis?

Maybe you are a trend-follower. In any case, you and your company are a product of the comfort zone in which you spend your time. You can play it safe or you can embrace change and the associated risks to prepare for the future.

The world is full of companies in each of the four comfort zones. However, those overseas in developing countries are more likely to be found in one of the positive (+) comfort zones while those companies in the U.S. are commonly found below that line in one of the negative (-) zones. Thus, the number one concern, imports, has significant meaning.

You have the knowledge and information available to you to enable you to compete in today’s market. Just make sure your comfort zone is shifted to the top and right of the chart and put this knowledge and information to use.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.