Marshall Atkinson offers up a brilliant, if somewhat sobering, fable for garment decorators about the dangers of standing still in the face of change and growing competition

Once upon a time Rocky ran a garment (fur) decoration shop (tree) for all the other animals in his area. He used to have a good business and made a lot of acorns over the years.
Rocky wasn’t comfortable with change as he always liked to do things ‘his way’.

Recently there has been a good bit of financial pressure in his tree. Rocky has been losing acorns steadily over the last year or so. His wife Matilda has been in his ear about trying something new to grow the business.

She fancied a bigger nest in that oak tree across the pond. The one with golden leaves in the autumn. You know the one.

Rocky’s biggest challenge is the raccoons that work in the forest across from the farmer’s field. They built up a huge fur decorating enterprise seemingly overnight and have been steadily eating into Rocky’s territory. One client after another, they all seem to be heading away from Rocky.

“They don’t even do a good job!”, Rocky used to say jealously. “I’ve seen their work. Sloppy. In fact, I heard the raccoons aren’t even doing the printing! They are contracting the orders out to those badgers by the river. They run everything out of their basement log. They just ship the goods in raccoon-branded boxes!”

But look at poor Rocky now. Business indecision led to his heartbreaking demise.

Ricky’s sad tale

The other side of the tarmac was calling.

For years Ricky had heard tales of the siren song of what was over there. New ideas. New ways of doing things. New equipment. New everything.

When he finally had enough of Matilda’s nagging he left to venture over to the promised land. He was reluctant to go, as he’s always been more comfortable in his own tree.

Alert and eyes wide, he thought he was making a safe bet by darting over the road. It looked clear. Quick, zig-zaggy steps. Just like usual. Despite being an older squirrel, Rocky hadn’t lost much in his speed. Yet, he made a dangerous decision.

He stopped mid-step and questioned his direction.

“What exactly is on the other side anyway?” Mumbling, he pivoted to his left, “Maybe I’m better off on familiar ground!”

That’s when it hit him. The truck bumper of change. Driven by one of those raccoons.
Rocky didn’t stand a chance. He was too slow to try something new and got a face full of chrome instead. Jelly-legged in fear, he was flattened by his biggest rival. Tragic.

If only he had stayed the course and just embraced the thought of learning something different.

The other side of the road

If Rocky had made it across, what would he have discovered?

Rocky wasn’t one to ever admit that he didn’t know something. Experienced in traditional fur decoration methods, he always struggled with learning anything different. He just didn’t see the value.

New inks, threads, techniques and even suppliers didn’t matter to him. “Go with what you know.” Rocky always played it safe.

Across the road was a land full of fresh ideas. All the other fur decorator animals were constantly inventing better ways to do the same old thing. A lot of them were tremendously successful.

Sure, the old ways still worked. That’s what made Rocky so sure that ‘his way’ was the right way.

But on the other side of the road the new approaches made the other trees more competitive and relevant. This drove the growth that Rocky was missing. Every animal was fighting the same fight against those damn raccoons. Because these smarter squirrels banded together, they learned how to operate their businesses better, what equipment made production faster or easier, how to decorate new types of fur, and even different pricing strategies.

Their trick to fuel the growth was simple. Inject fresh thinking into their tired old game. But how?

They gathered at different watering holes sporadically during the year. These were nicknamed ‘trade shows’. There they could visit with each other. Compare notes. Even test out and view new products for decorating fur. There were even classes dedicated to teaching the deepest held secrets.

It was the listening part that Rocky found troubling. Even away from a trade show floor.
Rocky always hated talking to salesanimals. “What a waste of time,” he would always say. “They just want to sell me something.”

The others knew better though.

They always actively listened to the salesanimals when they trotted over to their tree. Spending time with them allowed them to learn new tricks. Plus they always had great samples. Who doesn’t love that?

But Rocky wouldn’t pay attention.

“I’ve been decorating fur for years!” he would squeak when anyone mentioned talking to a salesanimal. “Geez, what do they know? If they knew what they were doing, they would still be in the fur game themselves!”

Time to improve the tree

One of Rocky’s largest challenges was time. He never had any. “I’ll get around to that later,” was a phrase Rocky said at least once a day.

The irony, of course, is that Rocky employed many squirrels and at least nine temporary chipmunks. He never let any of his subordinate staff handle anything though.

Matilda would always ask why, and he would always say, “They won’t do it the same way I would.”
Charles the marmot even had a degree in branch management from Oak Wood State University. But Rocky couldn’t see past his whiskers to put that to good use. Charles had studied across the road. He had even been to a few gatherings at the ‘trade show’ watering hole when he worked for a tree in the next valley over.

Charles had suggested upgrading their fur decorator to a newer model. There had been some mechanical and technology advances in the last few seasons. The newer models outperformed the older ones. This potentially would make a tremendous impact on the tree’s production schedule. Less downtime meant more production completed per day.

Rocky wouldn’t hear of it. “Our tree paid this equipment off years ago!” he stammered, red-faced.

Charles even showed him a comparison spreadsheet. New equipment versus the older version. It graphed what it cost them in acorns in overtime to keep up the same pace if they kept using the older equipment. The new equipment would be paid off in almost a year and half at the same rate.
It was easy maths, even for a rodent.

That’s how Charles wound up working for the raccoons. Rocky fired him for bringing in new ideas. And for not agreeing with him.

Charles brought all the new ideas to the raccoons, which they hungrily ate up with scavenger-like relish.

The truck that killed Rocky was packed solid with orders going to Rocky’s old customers. It even held six boxes of goods for the fat old beavers for their annual dam-building event. Rocky had been printing that job for a decade at least. Not anymore.

Rocky never knew what hit him. Quite literally.

Ask the owl

The one thing that always most terrified Rocky was that across the road lived all the owls. Owls are scary. Because, to Rocky, they were always asking questions. And Rocky hated questions.

“Who,” said the owls, “are your customers and where do they live?” Rocky hated that one. Of

course his customers live in his woods! They are his friends and neighbours!

“Then why are the raccoons stealing your business?”

All Rocky could think about was that they were just sneaky. “C’mon, they wear bandit masks every day!”

But what Rocky couldn’t face was that the owls always had good answers to go with the questions they proposed. The owls knew that Rocky’s biggest problems could be broken down into a few different buckets.

What the owls wanted to suggest to Rocky more than anything was to write a business plan and focus on resolving his future-oriented challenges.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” was the old owl saying. Questions, questions, questions…

  • Hiring new squirrels Where to find them, how to train them, what to pay them, how to motivate them. Plus, are temporary chipmunks a good idea?
  • Making more acorns At the end of the day, how many acorns did you make on that job? Can you do it better? What does each task cost?
  • Scaling the business Strategic planning for growth. Matilda wanted a new nest, remember? The owls would ask, “What is the purpose of your business?” or “Who is your ideal customer?”
  • Managing acorn flow Acorn problems are always at the top of any list. Acorns in. Acorns out. What’s left over? Winter is coming
  • New ways to decorate fur Especially the newer material made from synthetic polyester-fur. Rocky’s always came out wrong. He constantly blamed his suppliers
  • Technical processes How to do things better, faster and more efficiently. The owls knew that no matter how good you may think you are, there is always room for improvement
  • Speed as an advantage The owls know that when everyone else takes seven to 10 days to ship, and you can do it in three to five, you will win. The trick is how
  • Finding new customers Competing with today’s marketing craziness. How to sell on value, not price. Play up strengths and creativeness. Create trust

But Rocky just couldn’t admit that he needed help or even that there might be a better way to run his tree. He wouldn’t listen.

Don’t be like Rocky. Sure, you know what you are doing. Without your skill, hard work and determination your tree wouldn’t be successful. It’s a fact. But despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to cross the road and search out even better answers.

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft (www.InkSoft.com), and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.
marshall@inksoft.com