Can old dogs unlearn old tricks?
About six months ago, I wrote about businesses being behind the 8 ball or choosing to get in front of it and become more innovative.
Surprisingly, I got calls and emails from many readers wanting to know what I thought the next innovation might be. As I told them, and now you, there is no sense sharing my “best guess” because you wouldn’t believe me anyway. You’re not ready to hear it and certainly won’t act on it no matter how accurate I might be.
I might tell you something crazy like using drones to deliver drycleaning garments. You’ve probably read about that idea already, which isn’t my “best guess,” by the way.
Regardless, right off the bat there are all sorts of reasons that this idea may not work. You can only pick up a few items at a time. Flying customer clothes through the air is ridiculous. You’re in the business of drycleaning clothes, not flying drones. It’s just not practical. And the list of problems and reasons this will not work go on and on. It’s a crazy idea, perhaps just like retail routes were in the 1980s with all the reasons that wouldn’t work either. Remember?
Before we can ever begin to accept a new idea, we often need to unlearn the old one.
Going back far enough, there was a time when these articles were written long hand. Once the draft was acceptable, it would be typed on a typewriter (remember them) and mailed to the magazine.
Writing long hand was nice. The ideas flowed quickly, sometimes faster than the pen would work, resulting in a quick outline which was then expanded upon when time allowed.
Moving to word processing— that’s what it was called way back when — was difficult. I’d stare at a blank screen, fingers on a keyboard and NOTHING. I needed to have that pen in my hand to get the ideas to flow from my brain.
It sounds silly now, but it was a real problem back then. It took some time and practice before I could unlearn the pen and brain combination and learn the keyboard and brain combination.
Another example that many can relate to is having broken your right arm or torn your right rotator cuff or even sprained your wrist. Out of habit you keep wanting to lift that right arm.
Pain is a great teacher and you’re forced to do it the hard way, with your less dominant arm, until it becomes the easier way, or at least less painful.
We’ve learned many things over the years, but we’ve never been taught to “unlearn” anything. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is becoming clear that at the rate of change required to survive, we must make continuous learning and unlearning a core competency.
I would argue that the unlearning may be more important than the learning, or at least has to happen first, because if you don’t understand that what you’re currently doing isn’t the best way to go — and I mean really understand it — you’re not going to stop doing it and start doing it a new way. Change is hard and we’re not going to do it if we don’t absolutely have to.
What does this have to do with drycleaning?
The drycleaning industry continues to be in a very painful period. Sales, particularly retail drycleaning pieces, have been falling for a long time. Sure there’s an uptick now and then, but the dress codes and the general demographics do not bode well for any significant, long growth.
Remember the years of double-digit growth? Owners have tried to plug the gap and fill their plants in various ways, including restoration services, industrial rental, and coin-ops, but often find it difficult to manage these various businesses and continue to struggle on the retail side.
I think it’s time we figured out this unlearning thing. If we don’t, we’ll continue to try to layer the new over the old and tuck in the edges in hopes that it looks like a good fit, when in fact we need a whole new base to build on.
So how do you unlearn what you have been doing to make way for new knowledge and skills? The result of this exercise is what others see as innovation. When you have a good idea, an idea that solves a problem for your current customers or your future customers, then start with a clean slate to implement the idea.
But I can’t because…
But it won’t work because…
But I need…
But it’s too hard…
Instead, the questions are:
What can I do?
How do I get …?
What else do I need?
Where do I find…?
These are the questions of the innovators. They focus on finding solutions to fulfill their purpose. They work around obstacles. They avoid the naysayers. They often struggle with trial and error, but don’t let that deter them from their vision. It always takes longer than they had hoped, but success can be sweet.
Innovations don’t have to be really big and major and dramatic changes. Sometimes those big things come along unexpectedly and it looks like “dumb” luck, but in fact they evolve because you’ve become more open to making small changes, suffering between the unlearning and relearning, along with your staff. The more you do it the easier it becomes, so start small.
What aggravation does your customer experience?
What customer experience can you improve upon?
Why do you give me a credit card receipt? Turn it off unless it’s asked for.
Why do you leave the invoice on the garment? Email it.
There are always reasons not to make even these small changes. It’s too hard. We’ll have to retrain the staff. Why bother as our customers don’t care.
Consider unlearning all of these conclusions. Try it in one store. Don’t worry, it’s not a true innovation. It’s been done before and quite successfully, but it’s a good experiment.
Can you unlearn? Can you learn something new. Can you work through the process, the frustrations, the time commitment, the trial and error and in the end have something new and better?
Your survival depends on it.
Deborah Rechnitz has been an independent management consultant to drycleaning industry members since 1980. She also held the position of chief operating officer of one of the largest USA drycleaning operations in 2008. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance and Personnel Administration; a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interpersonal Com-
munications; and an MBA in Operations Management from Case Western Reserve University. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at (253) 405-7043.