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Spot a good idea when you hear one

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

A cross section of salaried employees took part in a planning session for a big chemical company in Tennessee. Marilyn was the least senior and least knowledgeable employee and the only woman in the group whose task was to figure out how to cut skyrocketing railroad-transport costs.

After some brainstorming without any precipitation, Marilyn proposed that the company use a different rail line across the river. The men rolled their eyes and explained that, because the competitor provided only passenger service, it would not carry the company’s product.

Marilyn reminded the men about a pipe that crossed the river. They rolled their eyes some more, explaining patiently that the pipe carried fresh water.

Undeterred, Marilyn mused whether the company could use the pipeline to send the chemical over the river, then clean it out and use it for water again. The men patronized her a third time, explaining that cleaning out the pipe after each shipment would cost too much.

“Would it cost more than the obscene amounts the rail company demands for their services?” she asked. Her colleagues coughed and shifted in their seats. They didn’t know.

By casting off assumptions that limited her thinking, then rethinking the problem with a clear mind, Marilyn prodded her “superiors” into investigating whether cleaning out the pipeline might dramatically lower costs.

In its own way, it did. When the existing rail provider found out that the chemical company was looking into a different way to ship, it lowered its price by $1 million a year.

— Adapted from Slay the Dragons, Free the Genie: Moving past negativity and resistance to get great results, Bennett A. Neiman, Chrysalis Publications.

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