Friday, May 2, 2008

Lessons of the Square Watermelon

This from Leslie, process improvement extraordinaire:

Japanese grocery stores had a problem. They are much smaller than their US counterparts and therefore don't have room to waste. Watermelons, big and round, wasted a lot of space. Most people would simply tell the grocery stores that watermelons grow round and there is nothing that can be done about it. That is how I would assume the vast majority of people would respond. But some Japanese farmers took a different approach. If the supermarkets wanted a square watermelon, they asked themselves, "How can we provide one?" It wasn't long before they invented the square watermelon.

The solution to the problem of round watermelons wasn't nearly as difficult to solve for those who didn't assume the problem was impossible to begin with and simply asked how it could be done. It turns out that all you need to do is place them into a square box when they are growing and the watermelon will take on the shape of the box.

This made the grocery stores happy and had the added benefit that it was much easier and cost effective to ship the watermelons. Consumers also loved them because they took less space in their refrigerators which are much smaller than those in the US meaning that the growers could charge a premium price for them.

What does this have do with anything besides square watermelons? There are a few lessons that can you can take away from this story which help you in all parts of your life. Here are a few of them:

Don't Assume: The major problem was that most people had always seen round watermelons so they automatically assumed that square watermelons were impossible before even thinking about the question. Things that you have been doing a certain way your entire life have taken on the aura of the round watermelon and you likely don't even take the time to consider if there is another way to do it. Breaking yourself from assuming this way can greatly improve your overall life as you are constantly looking for new and better ways to do things. This was one of the most difficult things for me to do because most of the assumptions I make, I don't even realize that I'm making them. They seem perfectly logical on the surface, so I have to constantly make an effort to question them.
Question habits: The best way to tackle these assumptions is to question your habits. If you can make an effort to question the way you do things on a consistent basis, you will find that you can continually improve the way that you live your life. Forming habits when they have been well thought out is usually a positive thing, but most of us have adopted our habits from various people and places without even thinking about them. I have changed a large number of habits that I have had after taking the time to question them and continue to do so. Some of them I have know idea where they came from while others I can trace to certain people or instances in my life. It's a never ending process, but by doing this, you can consistently strive toward making all aspects of your life more enjoyable instead of defaulting to what you have now.
Be creative: When faced with a problem, be creative in looking for a solution. This often requires thinking outside the box. Most people who viewed this question likely thought they were being asked how they could genetically alter water melons to grow square which would be a much more difficult process to accomplish. By looking at the question from an alternative perspective, however, the solution was quite simple. Being creative and looking at things in different ways in all portions of your live will help you find solutions to many problems where others can't see them. I am not a creative person, but I've found that the more that you look at things from different perspectives, the more creative I have become. It's a learned art and builds upon itself.
Look for a better way: The square watermelon question was simply seeking a better and more convenient way to do something. The stores had flagged a problem they were having and asked if a solution was possible. It's impossible to find a better way if you are never asking the question in the first place. I try to ask if there is a better way of doing the things that I do and I constantly write down the things I wish I could do (but currently can't) since these are usually hints about steps I need to change. Get into the habit of asking yourself, "Is there a better way I could be doing this?" and you will find there often is.
Impossibilities often aren't: If you begin with the notion that something is impossible, then it obviously will be for you. If, on the other hand, you decide to see if something is possible or not, you will find out through trial and error.
Take away the lessons from the square watermelons and apply them to all areas in your life (work, finances, relationships, etc) and you will find that by consistently applying them, you will constantly be improving all aspects of your life.

3 comments:

Chris Young said...

Dan - I absolutely love this post!

It speaks volumes as to how we can really rock the boat in our respective industries when we stop thinking in terms of limitiations and start thinking in terms of possibility.

As I like to say... Maximize Possibility!

Chris Young

gregg dourgarian said...

Dan. I enjoyed this and recommend your blog but question the fawning over Japanese design.
http://staffingtechnology.blogspot.com/2008/05/square-watermelon-management.html

Dan McCarthy said...

Chris , Gregg -
Thanks. Gregg, thanks for the mention on your blog and nice rebuttal. I'll be back to visit.