Being prepared to handle the unexpected, whether positive or negative, will help to determine the right path for a company to travel.

One of my all time favorite guys is Yogi Berra - not for his legendary baseball skills, but for his great quotable sayings. The title of this column is one of the quotes from his book, The Yogi Book. This line is funny to us because we don't have enough information to know which fork to take.

To make a sound decision, we first must know where we are going and then, if we have not traveled that same road before, we need road signs to show us the way. Thus, if we don't know where we are going, we are lost and Yogi's statement is indeed laughably applicable - even if a potential disaster awaits us.

When your company comes to a fork in the road, will you know which road to take? If the answer is no, the bigger question becomes "Why not and what can be done about it?"

Have you ever changed your destination after starting out on a trip, or decided to take a short- cut? I am rather notorious for doing this - just ask my wife. However, I have a very good sense of direction and an ability to get somewhere based on my hunches. For example, I experienced stalled traffic on I-95 a year ago on my way to Washington DC and left the interstate to get around the

accident. Now I knew that if I exited right, and then looked for a road that cut left, and then traveled several miles and took another left or two, I should return to the interstate. If I was lucky, I would find some signs pointing to I-95 along the way and rejoin the highway past the accident.

Bad decision! I should have had a road map, because after driving for 15 minutes, I re-entered the highway only two miles down the road. Unfortunately for me, the accident was still five miles ahead. I obviously made some bad decisions at one or more crossroads or forks in the road. Actually, the worst decision was leaving I-95 in the first place without a Virginia roadmap.

Your Company

It's okay to have a laugh on me, but ask yourself if your company would ever do anything as stupid in its business journey as I did on I-95 that day.

Many companies have that same macho-male ego. They are experienced in their market and have been manufacturing the same or similar products for years. There is really no reason to be concerned if something unexpected happens, as their experience and wisdom will carry them. If you have read this column over the years, you will recall that I often refer to this attitude as the "Titanic Syndrome" Those who built the "unsinkable" Titanic were quite arrogant about their knowing it all. Unfortunately, sometimes those who start and build a company develop the same attitude.

Over the past six or eight years, many furniture manufacturers and their suppliers have suddenly lost business to imports. Elsewhere, many companies have seen their products become obsolete - such as the old, traditional entertainment centers. Still other wood products manufacturers have seen some or all of their lines replaced with plastic or other materials. All of these occurrences resulted in a fork in the road for each manufacturer because a decision between alternatives of what to do had to be made.

On the other hand, some companies have seen tremendous growth over the past few years. There are examples of this in the cabinet industry and many smaller custom furniture and millwork manufacturers around the country. What do you do when your volume suddenly increases 50 to 100 percent? What do you do when your lead times get stretched out too long? What do you do when quality is suffering because of the demand on manufacturing capacity and capabilities?

The degree to which a company is prepared to handle or avoid the unexpected (positive or negative) will ultimately determine its long-term viability. Stated another way, the degree to which a company is prepared to choose the right fork in the road will determine its future success.

It is time to ask the question: Is your company prepared for Yogi's fork in the road?

What Happened to MBO?

Do you remember the term "Management By Objectives?" Thirty-some years ago, MBO was the catchword for a common-sense approach to achieving greater positive results at all levels of management, from the lumberyard supervisor to the president of the company. The idea is still a valid one.

First, management must decide on broad objectives for the company. Many often refer to this as creating a vision for the company, or a longer-range view of what the company should be in five years or so. Since a vision is of no real value without a way to achieve it, a mission statement is required to state in a few words how the company is going to realize this vision. This mission statement does not outline the details, but rather what the company is all about and what its focus will be to reach the vision.

If a cabinet manufacturer documents overall goals and objectives, it can serve as a roadmap, and the company will be better prepared to navigate the forks in the road ahead. If that company is relying on its past successes and experiences, it will be difficult at best for management to choose the right road.

When you talk about managing your company, you must include the goals and objectives of the company itself, as well as each working group within.

In my previous columns about achieving lean manufacturing status and employee empowerment, I have included the necessity for good measurable goals and objectives throughout the organization so that everyone in the company is working toward the same end. You can think of this as management by objectives, but I would rather you look at objectives as a guide to management by employee empowerment and continuous improvement.

Goals and objectives in themselves will not move a company forward. You need a plan of action to achieve them that is consistent with the mission statement of the company.

Choosing the Right Road

When confronted with a challenge, look at your company" goals and objectives, and its vision and mission statements, then determine exactly where you are at that point in time. The first question is, "Should our goals and objectives still be the same or do they need to be revised?" Then ask, "How can we best reach these goals given the circumstances now?"

The answers to these questions will provide you with the information necessary to navigate your way around that obstacle in the road. If you try to choose Yogi's fork in the road without this information, you will likely end up as I did - wandering around the countryside wasting precious time and money trying to follow your gut feelings.

It is common sense and it applies to every department and every person in your organization. It would be a mistake for you whatever your position in your company, to think that this applies only to the corporate managers or the owner of your company. I encourage you to look at your own area of responsibility and to develop goals and objectives - even if there are no clear company-wide goals. You can and should develop your own goals to help your wood products company become more profitable.

When you are confronted with a challenge in your department, you will be better equipped to make the proper decision on how to move forward or which fork to take. If your company has no specific goals, talk about setting some. It will make your organization stronger and better prepared to compete in today's incredibly competitive environment.

I have seen many companies that have been traveling the same familiar road, year after year. As long as that route remained unchanged, it was easy for them to navigate with little or no challenge. However, as soon as circumstances changed significantly (and they always do), they were not prepared to make sound business decisions to modify their direction and adapt. This usually was the major cause of a decline in the company.

Every company, including yours, must know where it is going and travel that road with vision and purpose. Then, when you come to a fork in the road, you can confidently take it.

Tom Dossenbach is the managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail [email protected]. Visit his Web site at

Illustration by Chris Nititham

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