This was an article I wrote many years ago. While the term, “Think Outside the Box” is pretty dated the message still holds true.

In today’s business world (when I originally wrote this), the sayings, “you have to think out of the box” or “in order to achieve results in today’s environment you have to think out of the box,” are heard usually when desired results are not being achieved. This concept, while important, may be putting the focus in the wrong place. Companies or people are generally using this process when they are having challenges. In most situations this concept can only be used to move a good process forward after the fundamentals are achieved.

In other words, If you think of a theoretical box, the inside represents the fundamentals of a task. The outside of the box represents unique and creative ideas on how to move a task further forward to truly reach outstanding results. If you try and think outside the box before executing the fundamentals it is highly unlikely that the creative ideas will achieve long term results.

When I originally wrote this post was a partner in a chain of restaurants. We identified controlling food cost as one of our critical success factors. One of the ideas to help achieve this goal was to create a manual that explained gross margin and why it was important to our company and to the crew member. This book (What is Gross Margin and Why Should I Care) gave simple definitions and examples of how food cost (as well as labor and paper costs) affected the profitability of our company. We also used this to help the crew members understand where their raises, profit sharing and benefits came from in relation to sales and profits. This manual was given and explained to crew members as part of their initial training and in subsequent team meetings. My belief is that creating and using this manual was thinking outside of the box.

Thinking out side the box in this situation was good because it gave us a new way to engage everyone in the sales and profit goals. However, we found that when we fell short of our goals it was not because the crew members did not understand food cost nor was it because they did not understand this manual. The reason we fell short of our goal on occasion was that the fundamental process managing food costs (inside the box) were not being met.

It should be understood that overall we had a pretty strong track record for meeting food cost goals. The fundamentals of managing food costs were:

• Proper ordering practices
• Proper receiving practices
• Proper inventory practices
• Proper food handling and prep practices
• Proper sandwich making practices
• Proper cashiering practices

When we fell short of our food cost goals it could be attributed to the list above. Most of the situations that caused poor food cost stemmed from sloppiness of the administrative portion of food cost (ordering, receiving, or inventorying) or from poor hiring choices and lack of training. These are areas that must be functioning before the gross margin manual could be productive.

I am not an opponent to thinking outside the box. My belief is that if utilized properly, thinking outside the box can achieve great results. When fundamentals (inside the box) are achieved and out of the box ideas are also being used successfully the box grows to encompass the out of the box ideas. In other words, today’s creative ideas can become tomorrow’s fundamentals. Then the process starts all over.