The Vision Thing

Volume 136, No. 50  - Friday, June 8, 2012

I get that it is important to have an aim, really I do. I mean, part of the work I do is to help people put in writing and what they want to be, in words the people working for them understand.

But what I don’t get, is the almost religious fervor some people put into writing their vision statement, their mission, their objectives, of course, their tasks: as if writing them down is the same thing as making them real.

It’s not the words, it’s what the words represent that holds the power. Words are symbols, symbols that can and can’t, do or don’t relate directly to the reality behind their meaning. Let’s face it, some vision statements are done because people think they’re supposed to do them. They’re put in a book somewhere, or posted to the wall, and forgotten about, like some procedure manuals... Not yours of course!

Oh, and they all were filled with high toned, well-intentioned ideals and dreams. No one would knowingly write a vision statement that said: “We, the blah blah cheese company works hard every day to buy the lowest cost, cheapest ingredients and pay our workers the least amount of money we can get away with, no matter what the quality of our workers, to sell a consistently mediocre, highly variable cheese at the highest possible price we can get away with.”

But even the most well-intentioned vision statement, written with the help of the highest cost consultants, is nothing more than words until you make it real. It ain’t the vision alone, you need so much more.

Like purveyors of patent medicine, well-intentioned but un-informed adherents to this or that flavor of instant pudding, paint by numbers solutions to the problems of business, are coming out of the woodwork, and knocking on the doors of the cheese industry, waving bottles of this or that miracle cure, lean this, leadership that, innovation this, 6 Sigma that in hand.

I was told recently that the number one question new cheese makers are asking these days is “what should my KPI’s be compared to other companies like mine?” Is that true? I hope not! Putting aside the fact that small cheese companies are not exactly software companies, nor, in most cases, require high tech engineering, where the heck did they get that lingo from? Key performance indicators and Dash Boards are the kind of business speak that sounds good on the surface, but is misleading and dangerous in reality, even when placed in savvy hands.

A thermometer can only tell you you are sick, it can’t tell you with what. You can’t manage by results because results are the “result” of something, they are caused by something. Wouldn’t we be better served by focusing on the causes, the systems and processes we have in place, and see if we can use our “noodles?”

Solutions that come from others are copied solutions, and work by luck. Solutions that come from within are more likely to work. Even Mr. Toyota warned Toyota does not do lean, and admonished us to learn from them, but never copy them. Every bit of this Vision Thing, and the new catchwords of Leadership and Innovation, owe their roots to the work of Dr. Deming, and that is something I have dedicated many years to understanding. Why choose the trimmings, when you can have the whole block of cheese?

Why do we do this to ourselves? Isn’t simple English good enough? Do we in the dairy industry have an inferiority complex? If it didn’t work for Chrysler and GM, why will it work for us, and they both have beautifully written mission statements.

It’s not the recipe, it’s the cook that makes the food taste good! We shouldn’t! Most of the people hawking these high toned, lingoistic solutions are refugees from industries that have long since stopped making anything real.
We are one of the handful of real manufacturing industries left in the US. We should stand proud, and demand a higher standard: real medicine, not patent medicine

So even if your aims are lofty, and your vision reads something like: “we aim to be the best company, producing the best cheese, providing our customers the best value, while respecting nature, and helping to enrich the communities we serve and the community we work in,” the question begs, how?

Because it takes so much more than just an aim; it has to be a good aim, one you can actually achieve, and you have to ask yourself; “by what method am I going to achieve this aim, and how will I know if what I achieve is what I wanted to achieve?”

Every business is different, and comparing yourself to any other businesses is dicey, and of questionable value, except in the most basic ways, like are you paying the same price for milk. The machines you use are different, the people, the location, the building, the workflow, the milk, many times, even the cheese. Every moment spent trying to understand how other companies work, may very well be time better spent understanding yours.

Key performance indicators, and snappy vision statements may make us feel in control, but real control comes from understanding. You can’t eat feelings. The vision may give you the why, and the mission the what, but there is still the who, the where, the when, and the how.

Always ask Wheeler's three questions:
What are you trying to do?

1. What do you want to accomplish?
2. By what method will you accomplish your objective?
3. How will you know when you have accomplished your objective?

And never forget, never forget natural variation so you know when to act, and when not to.

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at You can visit and blog with Dan at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Customer Service? NOT!
dot Collaboration: The Road To A Better Future
dot Resolution
dot Water

dot In Memoriam: Ignazio Vella 1928-2011
dot Of Cheese, Seals, And Deming
dot In Their Own Words: Lettie Kilmoyer
dot In Their Own Words: Fritz Maytag
dot In Their Own Words: Paula Lambert
dot Show Me the Money: Cost Accounting
dot Cost Accounting Chokes, Part 2: Inventory

dot Cost Accounting Is Choking Your Business, Part 1
dot It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over
dot Raw Reason
dot A Story For The Holiday Season, Part II
dot A Story For The Holiday Season
dot Truth In Labeling
dot This Too Shall Pass or "What were we thinking?"
dot Marketing Language That Resonates
dot When Will We Ever Learn?
dot Cheese Competitions In The Context Of Marketing

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

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