One durable addition that management theorists have made to the language is the phrase "thinking outside the box." This generally is taken to mean looking at a problem from a different perspective, or perhaps restating it differently.
Many years ago, I spoke with a coffee service operator in the Washington, DC, area who told us about a new service he had launched. At the time, the early OCS business model that involved placement of low-cost pourover brewers at no cost to clients was being challenged by innovators who were offering plumbed-in automatic brewers.
These "push-button" appliances certainly made life easier for location personnel and widened the coffee service market beyond its original small-office core. But they were more expensive, and they required connection to a potable water source. If that source was a municipal water supply, installing an inline filter almost always was a good idea, if for no reason other than preventing mineral deposition on hot-water contact surfaces and eliminating taste and odor (mostly chlorine) that degraded the quality of hot beverages.
Fortunately, suitable filters had been invented for hot-beverage vending machines three decades earlier, and had been refined to permit easy periodic service by replacing a disposable cartridge. But those cartridges cost money.
Our operator friend told me that he had been thinking about all this while reading the newspaper one day. One article reported that tests of the District of Columbia's municipal water supply had found a potentially dangerous level of asbestos-fiber contamination. He knew that his filters included a microparticle stage that removed things like asbestos fibers, and a thought came to him.
He copied the newspaper story and included a copy in a letter he wrote to his clients. He called attention to the increasing threats to municipal drinking water and announced that he was introducing a new pure-water service based on the workplace beverage service industry's cutting-edge water filtration technology. Having arranged to get the attention of his clientele, he had then only to devise a simple cabinet that would contain the filter housing and support a faucet and a connection for the coffee brewer. He then had an attractive item that he could place at a monthly rental charge sufficient not only to cover the cost of the filter cartridges and the labor required to replace them periodically, but also to recoup his investment in setting up the infrastructure. He had converted a continuing expense item into a continual revenue generator.
We're not sure that this represents thinking outside the box; it seems to us that it called for seeing the "box" differently. The boxes we're in change continually; new things fall in, old things fall out, external forces change the shape. The challenge is not so much to think outside the box as to see the box as it is right now, not as it used to be.
We recall another example of rearranging the box without stepping outside it. I spoke with a vending operator in California more than four decades ago. In discussing menu variety, he told us that portions of sliced raw carrots wrapped in cling film were proving very popular with his full-line customers, and worked well as "filler" in his refrigerated food machines. We asked how he came to think of putting raw carrots on the menu.
He replied that it started with an accident: his commissary manager inadvertently ordered way too many carrots, and the place was awash in them. The operator then had an inspiration: slice them up, portion, wrap and label them, and offer them for sale. It worked very well, not only turning a profit on the oversupply of carrots, but also adding an attractive new food selection. Many people are fond of raw carrots; they're tasty, offer a satisfying crunch and are easy to eat. Recognizing that unremarked preference allowed the operator to rearrange the contents of the box to his advantage.
Before there was talk of thinking inside or outside of the box, there was the management theorists' assertion that "there are no problems, there only are opportunities." We recall that, as this phrase entered the language, people had a good time with it, reporting on a burst water-pipe or a power outage with the preface, "We have an opportunity here..."
But it seems to us that the inside/outside and problem/opportunity dichotomies essentially describe the same reality. Obviously, there are clouds that have no silver lining, and there are boxes from which there is no escape to the outside. But it certainly is worth studying the situation carefully and clearly before giving up and settling back into the rut.
The workplace services industry does business in an expanding box whose contents are being enhanced at a rate not seen for decades. Keeping up with it all is difficult, and assembling it all into a coherent scheme is more difficult.
Nonetheless, it's important to make the attempt. Today's equipment is extraordinarily versatile. Looking at it imaginatively may well suggest new ways to enhance profits without going outside the box.