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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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The Long Way Home

There are six words that make me gnash my teeth in frustration and despair. They usually follow a question like, why are you/we doing this?

We’ve Always Done It This Way.

That sentence is uttered by people in organizations of all kinds. From small businesses to multi-billion dollar corporations. From schools to churches. From homeowner associations to city and county government.

It drives me nuts. No matter what group I’ve been involved with I’ve challenged those six words with a couple of other questions. What would happen if we didn’t do this anymore? Is there a better way to do it? Who benefits from continuing to do it this way? Who would benefit if we stop?

A brief story from early in my executive career as I neared the high end of the corporate ladder at Twin Modal.

My company arranged freight transportation as a federally licensed broker. I explained to people who asked that It was like being a travel agent for truckload freight shipments. We put companies that needed to ship their products together with carriers that could most efficiently move them. They call it third-party logistics now, mostly because the word broker has negative connotations. But I digress.

In the 1980s, before email and when PDF meant, well nothing, my company used paper invoices for each shipment arranged.

As a fast-growing company, it was important that we be very efficient at managing the financial side of our business, especially cash flow and record keeping. Our lead accounting guy, who did that quite well, instituted a policy that had our billing people collect a delivery receipt, or proof of delivery (POD), for each shipment and attach it to corresponding invoices we then mailed out.

Some customers, not all, required that proof before they’d pay–mostly to delay payment of freight charges as they managed their own cash flow. Others just tossed out the extra paperwork before processing a payment.

In those days we had a part-time employee, the sister of one of our accounting staff. She was a bright young woman working to help pay for medical school. Her job was to make copies of those PODs to mail with outgoing invoices. You’d often find her spending the better part of an afternoon in the copier room making and collating copies and stuffing envelopes.

One day I walked into the copier room to see her performing these tasks. I asked, “Do you know why you’re doing this?” And she answered in a way that sets my teeth gnashing, “Because they told me to do it this way when I started.”

So I did two things. First I explained why our policy of sending PODs to every customer came about. Every person in every organization should know the why of what they do. Second I asked her what she thought would happen if we didn’t make and send all these copies.

Naturally, she didn’t know. Frankly neither did I. But it seemed to me we were using an excessive amount of paper, postage, and time to send invoices and backup documents to our customers. I thought we could stop doing it and get our invoices out to customers as much as 14 days earlier than we were doing–speeding up cash flow. We would also save on paper and postage.

While I wasn’t quite a god at Twin Modal, more like a drunken high priest, my word did carry some weight. With the collaboration of the entire management team, from sales to operations to accounting, we stopped automatically sending PODs with our invoices. Turned out that only a few customers needed PODs so we managed for those exceptions. We’ve always done it this way is never the right answer.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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