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That concept of stellar supply chain management lies in the solid financial results Wal-Mart reaps today. Walton knew the value of hanging onto old cheese while securing new cheese. He kept his franchisee business for many years as he developed Wal-Mart.

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Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003

Challenge in today's economy: finding our 'new cheese'

Guest Columnist

In Spencer Johnson's bestseller "Who Moved My Cheese?," two mice and two human personalities, or "littlepeople," each deal differently with the challenge of finding new "cheese" or livelihoods in changing times.

We can identify parts of ourselves in Johnson's characters. Sniff, fueled by strong instinct, sniffs out change early, easily moving to the next cheese station. Scurry lives up to his name and puts his nervous energy to work. Hem is the king of denial because he resists change. Haw moves at opportune moments, just when he sees that change leads to something better.

In today's craggy roads of foraging for cheese, passion and a fearless attitude are prerequisites for survival. No longer can just a good idea at the right time and place make it, or those that have ample funding, as evidenced in the recent dot.com and economic buildup. The boon was flush with all-too-busy Scurries and Hems rushing about to claim the only cheese they knew. Some were motivated by the hype of technology and potential prosperity but lacked vision. Others saw tangible cheese in the distance, but rushed to the field too late.

When signs of the bust emerged a couple of years ago, wise cheese seekers, like Sniff and Haw, weren't so surprised. With an eye on fresh cheese, the bigger, bolder or more innovative enterprises of these folks gobbled up the Scurry and Hem Cos. who failed to notice the big picture because they were too busy procuring their beyond-freshness-date cheese.

In these hardscrabble times, launching a business demands a watchful eye on new cheese. Passion and the desire to do something differently can give an organization the momentum it needs to be a changemaker and master cheese seeker.

During the last recession in 1991, the desire for fresh cheese propelled Al Meehan and Bob Masters to launch Eagan-based freight forwarder Manna Freight Systems. Manna arranges freight transportation on carriers such as Northwest Airlines and FedEx. Meehan and Masters are passionate about transportation. They were also innovative in greatly automating how shipment data moves, while providing unsurpassed customer service.

Manna has thrived over the years but not always to plan. The ravages of 9/11 and problems associated with airline security ignited Masters' passion about freight security. The recognized threat of terrorism puts the nation's transportation sector at high risk, casting seeds for momentous change that may take decades to pan out across all transportation modes.

Driven by this problem, Manna devised a system for examining and x-raying air freight, and recently launched a new business around the concept. Despite government bureaucracy and resistance to establish processes for freight security by various airfreight industry groups, Manna expects to take a leadership position when and if inspections are nationally mandated for air cargo. Groups that have expressed interest in

Manna's freight security business include the Transportation Security Administration, a government agency formed immediately after 9/11.

Manna found new cheese to pursue — cargo security — before its mainstay cheese — movement of cargo — got stale. Its cheese entails how freight is moved, especially on passenger airlines. The threat of stale or no cheese is real for Manna because its primary cheese is endangered by the grave backdrop of developing national and global security initiatives to prevent terrorism that could ban cargo movements on passenger aircraft. Manna's business is also susceptible to the slumping economy and fierce competition.

The late Sam Walton, creator of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, formulated a whopper of a better mousetrap. Low on funds and wanting to boost profits, Walton was frustrated in the 1940s as a Ben Franklin variety store franchisee. Offering lower prices to the consumer was the way to increase inventory turns and drive revenue. Walton figured he'd reduce his capital outlay if he cut out middlemen and wholesalers.

That concept of stellar supply chain management lies in the solid financial results Wal-Mart reaps today. Walton knew the value of hanging onto old cheese while securing new cheese. He kept his franchisee business for many years as he developed Wal-Mart.

Both companies show incubating an idea helps before you jettison your old cheese. Similarly, author Spencer Johnson said in a recent interview that he developed the idea for "Who Moved My Cheese?" more than 20 years ago but wanted to see if he could live out the story before he presented it to the world. His characters, Sniff and Haw, with a little bit of Scurry, reveal that it takes passion and perseverance to discover your new cheese.

Jedd (e-mail: mj@marciajedd.com) is proprietor of MJ & Associates, a Twin Cities writing, research and marketing consultancy founded in 1991.