Now is the time to motivate your company to make improvements, and be ready for better times to come.

As I write this column, the economy around the world is in a tailspin; the government is in the midst of a gargantuan bail out and the stock market is in a major free fall. Symptoms of fear and depression abound as people like you and me try to make sense of all of this. We are in uncharted waters, to say the least, and have no idea what the future holds for us.

As I ponder these events, I am reminded that life has always been, and always will be, full of ups and downs. In our personal lives and in our wood products businesses, we have cycles measured by mountaintop experiences that are eventually followed by excursions into the valleys of life.

The Stress of Ups and Downs

Those who have been in this industry for awhile can recall times when demand for wood products was high and we struggled to keep up with orders. It is always a good feeling to see the economy booming and to have a hefty backlog. However, even in times of prosperity, we find ourselves grumbling about the pressures of very high demands on our production capabilities and the resulting late deliveries — we can’t help but experience success stress.

On the other hand, when business is slow, as it has been for many, a totally different set of forces is at work to cause a different kind of stress. Under this scenario, company management is worrying about cash flow and keeping the plant running without having to lay off experienced employees, plus a host of other issues. The mood has changed from being overwhelmed with orders, to being overwhelmed by the lack of orders.

Even though we experience stress while on the mountaintops of a business cycle, we would not trade it for the stress found while in the valley. But the reality remains that in both cases, there is an underlying negative attitude toward the current state of business and the problems of the day.

Why? It is your attitude — it is how you manage the stresses of our industry. The same issues that bother you when business is good are surprisingly similar to those during hard times. The lesson is that the economic times — good or bad — should never keep you from your process of continuous improvement. (See sidebar on page 24 comparing the attitudes in good times and hard times.)

The Mountaintop Experience

I read something about nature recently that made me think of our industry, during the past and present. It had to do with this very subject of mountaintops versus valley experiences.

The interesting fact was that very little grows on the highest mountain peaks. True, some trees and other vegetation do grow on the tops of the Great Smoky Mountains and elsewhere. But there is a conspicuous absence of fruit-bearing trees and plants at the higher elevations, with the exception of an occasional grape vineyard on the way up. In our mountain peak business cycles mentioned above, many companies are consumed with the present and seldom take time to look to the future to find ways to become stronger. Instead, they remain preoccupied with the challenges of the present. Thus, most mountaintops in our industry have been barren indeed — bearing no fruit for the future.

So, where are the fruit-bearing trees found? I am sure it is no surprise to find that the fruit bearing trees and plants are found in the valleys below.

In the Valley

Let’s agree for the moment that we are in one of those business valleys right now. We have descended down through the clouds to the place of uncertainty, depression and sometimes fear, where the future is uncertain at best. How are we going to handle this situation now that we are here?

We should learn from adversity and the downturns in our industry, no matter what sector it is: furniture, millwork, cabinets, store fixtures, custom wood products, etc. We should emerge wiser and stronger after being in the valley and while climbing up the mountain again. So what should we do and how do we go about it?

This is best answered by another question: What kind of attitude will you have as you go forward, day-by-day and week-by-week? Each of us has the choice to live through this time with an attitude of doom and gloom as if the glass is half empty and likely to go dry. However, this defeatist outlook will spread throughout your organization to every employee and result in a self-fulfilling philosophy that can only make things worse for your company. Depressed and negative minds cannot be creative and equipped to help develop a strategy to plan for a brighter future.

This fatalistic attitude will create a negative culture of self pity that even your customers will sense. This in turn will cause them to sense your insecurity and they will likely jump to another source that they perceive as stronger and more likely to be around when better times return.

On the other hand, you and your company can chose to look at the glass as half full and ready to receive more, to the point of overflowing. With this attitude, you will clear the way to sow seeds in the valley that will sprout and grow, to produce the good fruit referenced above. A glass half full creates a mindset that can withstand the drought better than a glass half empty.

How to Use a Glass Half Full

The strategy for today is really no different than that which I have been writing about for months. Simply stated, if you have not reviewed your operations inside and out — it’s time to do it now. Even if you have completed this exercise during the past year or so, it is time to do it again, given the circumstances.

I have had clients say that they did not have time to do this when business was booming. Now that business is slow, some of those same wood products managers are saying times are too tough to do anything but beat the bushes for business.

It does not make any sense to continually ignore the need for determining what changes must be made in your company in order to compete today. Now that you are in the fertile valley, it is time to evaluate your company and its operations and find the changes that can be made to stimulate healthy growth leading to strength and vitality now and for when your return to the mountaintop. The good news is that most good management in our industry knows this and has already begun the process.

When you carry a glass half full, you are prepared to capitalize on those opportunities for improved productivity that are so vital during a downturn. Just understand that productivity concerns more than just production through a process; it also includes the actions of your sales force, management, supervisors, maintenance, product development, etc.

The whole point is to have a culture of change and continuous improvement, leading toward lean, that we write about so much. This includes eliminating all sources of waste that will drain your company, both in good times and bad. It is far better to strive for a leaner and greener company that is much healthier and ready to compete for years to come.

What I have said about business mountaintops and valleys goes for personal lives as well. Remember that as you review your own circumstances and apply some continuous improvement at home.

Tom Dossenbach is the president of Dossenbach Associates Inc., a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail Visit his Web site at Past Management Matters columns are archived here.

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