Racing to win instead of to the bottom

I just watched a new Disney film, “Morning Light.” It’s about a sailboat race across the Pacific. The Transpac runs from California to Hawaii, a total of 2,225 lonely nautical miles.The late Roy Disney, nephew of Walt who died Dec. 16 at the age of 79, was involved, some would say dominated, in long-distance ocean racing for decades. He decided to train a crew of young sailors for the 2007 race and film it, as a way to pass on some of what he learned. They bought a boat, a TP52; renamed it “Morning Light,” and interviewed sailors for the crew.With 538 applicants, they were very selective. Fifteen sailors were hand-picked and brought to Hawaii. In his welcoming speech, Disney explained only 11 could go on the boat. The remaining four would continue to train in case somebody got hurt. Furthermore, the sailors would pick their skipper as well as the crew.It was an intensive six-month program, which included regular exercise to ensure these “kids” (18-23 – the youngest crew ever to sail a Transpac) could handle the boat. A fair amount of time was spent on safety.
Everyone learned how to fix everything. They learned to repair sails and rebuild winches. They became diesel mechanics. They learned navigation with electronics as well as with a sextant, should the electronics fail.Sailboat racing is an awful lot like business. It requires a fair amount of sailing skill (e.g. product/service knowledge, production skill, etc.), knowledge of the racing rules (e.g., the laws of business, etc.) and good weather forecasting to pick the best courses (e.g. understanding markets, anticipating customers’ needs, etc.).Although winning sailors hate to admit it, a fair amount of luck is often involved. Even so, just like in business, luck won’t do much for the team that is not doing the other things well.When Disney decided to go for it, he didn’t skimp. The crew trained in Hawaii and California to become familiar with conditions at the beginning and end of the race. It cost a lot more than just airline tickets and housing in both locations. Try shipping a 52-foot sailboat across the ocean in a hurry sometime. You’ll probably find the bargain fares just won’t work.

Measuring what’s easiestRemember when business used to be like this?Why have we become so lethargic? Could it be because all we care about is making money? Anything we can do to reduce costs is good, but what if it costs us sales? The idea of four standbys for an 11-person team doesn’t happen anymore. Most companies would try to reduce the entire crew to six or seven and blame the economy when they lost.To make matters worse, profitability is our most important measure of success. Lehman Brothers had their most profitable year ever, just a few months before they went belly up. Think about that — there are a lot of very sick companies making lots of money as their last hurrahs. Is yours one of them? Just how many do you suppose are in your 401(k)?What I’ve found over and over is we seldom measure what is most important. No, we routinely measure what is easiest. We all know how much we make. How many of us know what our market share is, whether it’s increasing or decreasing and, most importantly, why in either case? How about the other variables that determine the health of our business?Morning Light finished second in class, not bad for a novice crew, none of whom had ever crossed an ocean before. They lost to another TP52, crewed by professional sailors, who had done this many times.I wonder what would happen if they raced again? Are there any new competitors yapping at your heels? You may be beating them now, but what about next time? Unlike the Transpac, business races have no finish line. You have to stay up front, just to stay in business. Don’t you wish GM had looked at Toyota and a few others this way?Whether or not you’re a sailor like me, I suggest viewing “Morning Light,” perhaps even with your staff. You might find it great management training for actually winning, instead of just trying not to lose too badly.Like Morning Light, you might not win big the first time, but keep at it. That’s how the best got to be great. It’s too bad so many companies forgot.Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham who has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, can be reached at 603-898-1871, or