Determined optimism. Do you have some?

Have you ever started reading a book and something in it compelled you to stop and find out more?  That happened to me while reading Dan Egan’s THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT LAKES.  Wrestler #1 gave me this non-fiction book about the Great Lakes that I grew up surrounded by.  It’s a must read for anyone living in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Canada, or the whole United States for that matter.

The part that put me into research mode was almost an aside for Dan Egan.  It was a bit of back story about the man who is responsible for changing shipping on the Great Lakes.  Malcom Purcell McLean is the truck driver who invented container shipping.  He is consider by some to be as important as Robert Fulton, the father of the steam engine.  People thought McClean container shipping were about as silly as “Fulton’s Folly.”  If you don’t remember Fulton from Social Studies or American History, click here for a quick update. According to his obituary in “The New York Times,” McLean, a farmer’s son, is “the man dubbed the Father of Containerization.”

McLean was a boy with just a high school education who scraped together enough money in 1934 to buy a truck.  He hauled dirt, produce, and other odds and ends for people from his small farming community.  According to an article in Harvard Business School, McClean grew his fleet to 5 trucks before the Great Depression forced him to scale back to one truck that he drove.  That’s when he hatched his big idea.

McLean sat around a lot at the docks waiting for Longshoremen to unload trucks and reload them into ships.  He never had a course in Quality Managemen (cycle time, process mapping, Kaikaku, Lean, etc.) and I suppose he didn’t have Pokémon Go, the radio, or cell phones to occupy his mind.  Loading a ship was more art and science.  Some things had to be held, waiting for other things to arrive so everything could be tucked in just so.  Sorta like packing a grocery bag, on a much larger scale. All that waiting made McClean think, “There’s got to be a better way.”

[McLean] recalled: “I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off the truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship.” – (Harvard Business School)

Another 17 years slipped by before McLean’s thoughts crystalized into action. Then he almost failed.  Like Fulton,

In 1956, McLean converted an old WWII oil tanker with a raised platform with slots to hold 58 trailer trucks. “These were not trucks in any conventional sense – The 58 units had been detached from their running gear on the pier and had become containers.” (Dan Egan) He loaded the ship in Hoboken and six days later unloaded and reattached to trucks in Houston.  McLean calculated it cost him 16¢ to ship a ton of cargo using containers, compared to $5.83 using the conventional way. Eventually, McLean redesigned the truck beds and standardardized the containers to fit on rail, truck and ships, and to be stackable. He called his new company Sea-Land.

Believing that standardization was also the path to overall industry growth, McLean chose to make his patents available by issuing a royalty-free lease to the Industrial Organization for Standardization (ISO). (Harvard Business School)

It took a while for McLean’s idea to take hold. And he initially faced ridicule and later competitors tried to stop him with legal action. Now it seems to be the only way goods are shipped.  President Ronald Reagan celebrated Mr. McLean in 1984 for his vision and ”spirit of determined optimism.” McLean died in 2001, relatively unknown considering the broad impact of his innovation.

127071 / Pixabay

What would you like to improve? Cell towers are it for me.  There must be a way to make them more visually pleasing. I’ve seen water towers decorated like smiley faces and castle towers.  I’ve seen fire plugs made to look like little men.  I even saw this in San Jose.

My best ideas come when my mind seems idle or fixed on something else: when I’m taking a walk, gardening, in the shower.  That’s when my characters come to life.  That’s when I come up with ways to be more organized or more efficient. Lately I’ve been thinking about cell towers. There must be a better way for cell towers too. Maybe my ideas won’t save money or time.  Still, I think beautifying the surroundings is a laudable endeavor. I’m still waiting for the lightbulb to go off for this one.

What’s your big idea? Would it save money or time?  Would it make life easier or more pleasant? [tweetthis]How does your “spirit of determine optimism” manifest itself?[/tweetthis]