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Lessons from the Olympics

CHICAGO, March 6, 2014 () – Whether you are someone whose favorite TV chair is just recovering from many hours of Winter Olympics 2014 viewing or someone who had only peripheral interest, beneath the spectacle there are lessons we might apply to the challenges faced every day in the packaging industry.

These can be gleaned from watching other sporting events, but the Olympics provide such a concentration of activity and circumstances that it's rich ground for extracting insights.

The playing field is hardly ever level. Host countries almost always do very well, for many reasons, including familiarity with the quirks of venue and strong support. We’re all familiar with qualification stories where a unique packaging machine requirement isn’t discovered until too late. Or when some constituency that can skew how the qualification process proceeds may prefer the current supplier, specification, or some other aspect of supply.

The rules can be more than slightly opaque and are rarely enforced with total equanimity. In a little twist on the last one - it’s tough when the judging criteria are complex and high in subjectivity for everyone to get ‘fair’ treatment. Sometimes bid packages feel a bit like figure skating.

You better prepare for the type of competition you’ll really be in. One of a couple of lessons from speed skating apparently is that if you are going to compete at sea level, don’t spend too much of your preparation time in the mountains. Make sure to test package performance in all the meaningful conditions of use in the life cycle. And figure out how to be great in the most important areas.

There will be surprises. Skiing and snowboarding in the rain maybe should not have been a complete surprise given the chosen site for these Olympics, but those who triumphed were those who could adjust, literally on the fly, to the changing conditions. There are always surprises in materials, processes, customer and supplier ownership, strategies, and more. Building flexibility into your company’s ‘training regimen’ gives you a foundation for adjusting more quickly than the competition.

Just being the leading contender doesn’t ensure victory. Heavy favorites fail for a number of reasons, including just having a bad day. More often, however, hungry new or rising competitors can raise the bar on performance and surprise everyone. Approach every customer interaction knowing there are other smart and committed competitors out there and you have to earn your position every time.

When you’re facing elimination, you’d better do what it takes to continue. Elimination rounds are designed to do just that. Multi-stage projects or other processes need to be approached as if each stage could be the last, because they can.

In top-notch competition, exceedingly small differences can carry the day. Small fractions of seconds separate the winners and those off the podium. The most sophisticated customers carefully measure what matters and use those measurements to classify suppliers and new package options for further consideration while discarding others.

The newest technology must be accompanied by exceptional execution. Back to speed skating and all the hype over racing suits. Technology capable of shaving off a few hundredths in time only matters when you are within a few hundredths of the leaders. The best extruders, printing presses, you name it, only give you an edge when you know how to use their full potential. Make sure your execution is up to the capabilities of the technology.

Playing to not lose often precludes victory. Getting comfortable with a lead too often leads to playing it safe, and getting passed on the back stretch or outscored in the final minutes or seconds. Every order, every project is a chance to win or lose. Play to win.

Just because something doesn’t get much attention doesn’t mean there aren’t subtleties and nuances that get mastered by passionate practitioners. Each of us probably had one or more sports that just didn’t gain our attention (or sometimes that of the evening rebroadcast). You can be sure that the passionate practitioners in those events work extra hard to master the hidden aspects of those sports that make the ultimate difference in Olympic competition. Ignoring supply chain aspects that aren’t exciting or sexy opens the door for the competition. You need to have passionate practitioners throughout your organization, each dedicated to delivering winning performances in their specialties.

Finally, create and nurture a culture of excelling, and make sure actions reinforce and expand that culture daily. Witness the Netherlands dominance in speed skating. ‘Nuff said.

Viewing sports and especially the Olympics can be great entertainment and an escape. Most everything we encounter has the potential for giving us inspiration for improving how we live our lives, including our careers. Don’t miss out on your packaging Olympic moment!

Timothy Bohrer is the owner of Pac Advantage Consulting:

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