Chain of Thought

The Oblique Road to Success

I owe my career to obliquity and never realized it until hearing this word the other day. It's the title of a new book that's been getting media attention lately. “Obliquity” has to do with attaining a desirable goal without trying—or even intending to try. When I was in college trying to find my calling, material handling and logistics weren't making a peep. Yet, here I am 30 years later, writing about what you do for a living.

Author John Kay offers examples of such dumb luck. Louis Pasteur is a great one. His pasteurization process came from the unexpected results of an experiment.

In the business world, pharmaceuticals to be precise, Kay cites the case of George Merck who intended for his company to “make medicine for the people…not for profits.” His company just happened to be profitable in that enterprise—until later leadership took a more direct route to profit and failed in that attempt.

In paging through my ProMat Show notes from a few weeks ago I stumbled across another great example of obliquity. It came out of a TranSystems press conference. TransSystems, a logistics consultancy, had a guest speaker—one you wouldn't expect to hear at a material handling trade show. His name was Justin Wilson, an Indy Racing League driver. What's the connection between racing and logistics?

Even Wilson wasn't sure until he took a walk on the ProMat show floor. The direct connection for his presence was the partnership between TranSystems and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in supporting the Racing for Kids Foundation. Through this charity TranSystems executives and their clients will make dedicated visits to children's hospitals and participate in numerous silent auctions, coinciding with multiple race events in 2011. The oblique connection between racing and material handling, according to Wilson, is what goes on during the pit stops.

“The racing teams that win are the ones that are the most organized,” he said. He added that after talking to TranSystems and seeing what other exhibitors do for a living, he realized that logistics teams are similar to Indy pit crews. Ten years ago the philosophy in racing was to throw people at problems in the pit. Today, stronger teams are leaner, more efficient and better coordinated.

TranSystems is featured on Justin Wilson's No. 22 car for the 2011 racing season and he'll be driving in this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as well as the famed Indy 500. He's heading into this race on the heels of some rough action from the last race, where he had some unwanted contact with another car. Here's an excerpt from his most recent post on his own blog:

“We are now finding situations that are happening five or six times a race that would normally happen two or three times a season. The racing has changed and I don't think any of us have really appreciated that it has. We are running side by side for half a lap – and that never used to happen before. I think the fact that all the drivers and teams are finding this season even tougher than last year has proven some preseason theories wrong. Some people thought the teams would try and save money for the new 2012 car but, no, they're used to the mentality that every year counts. Everyone's going for it. This year's IZOD IndyCar Series championship means just as much as next year's and just as much as last year's.”

Logistics professionals learn that lesson every day in their supply chains, but it's good that the TranSystems team is seeing it on a race track. That's a context that will resonate with the hospitalized children they visit this weekend as part of Racing for Kids. From industry to the race track into the mind of a child: Strive for today and advance to tomorrow. That's an oblique track but a worthy finish line.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.