Commentary: The 80-20 rule

I used to have a boss who was a marketing genius seriously; he dreamed up ad campaigns, promotional ideas, even company names and taglines like no one I"ve ever encountered. A veritable fountain of great ideas.

But like many gifted people, he had his "quirks," one of which was an inability to drum up a whole lot of new business, which eventually shrank the firm to the point my services were no longer needed.

Another was his embrace of a whole series of rituals as part of his weekly, monthly and quarterly schedule at the office. I thought many of them bordered on superstition, but one in particular I came to value, now much more than then.

You"re familiar with the 80-20 Rule: Eighty percent of the work gets done by 20% of the employees; 80% of the problems come from 20% of the customers, etc., etc.

His was a little different spin on that hoariest of business cliches: Spend 20% of each monthly performance evaluation on the past 30 days, but invest the other 80% in mapping out plans for the coming month.

It was a variation of the old "he who fails to plan, plans to fail" theme, I suppose, but in the marketing field (unlike the day-to-day deadlines of journalism), where projects stretch out across months at a time, the 80-20 break down was very valuable.

That"s because we all give lip service to planning ahead, and no matter what business we"re in, we do spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time planning projects, setting goals and projecting revenues and earnings.

It always seems as if planning is one of the biggest and most time-consuming priorities we have.

But the aforementioned boss actually calculated the time-on-task spent rehashing previous projects, versus the time spent in strategic planning not just dissecting "to do" lists that are already on the calendar, but in thinking longer term about issues, challenges and opportunities out there on the horizon.

According to his admittedly limited calculations, he discovered that at best the split was more like 50-50, not 80-20. Half of the actual time, on duty, in the office, hard at work, was spent debriefing, discussing and dissecting projects that were already signed, sealed and delivered.

Only half, or even less than half, of the collective energy in the firm was devoted to what might be down the road.

Thinking ahead way ahead

I"d put that percentage even higher when it comes to animal agriculture and meat production. Ask anyone in the business what"s on their mind, and you"ll get a litany of issues the high price of feed, the volatility of the marketplace, the impact of retail prices on short-term demand. Those are all legitimate issues, and every one affects the bottom line of everyone involved, from live side to processing to marketing and merchandising.

But ask that same group to talk about the biggest challenges in the next generation, or the remainder of this century, and you"ll get a different response. Oh sure, most people can tick off a string of problems, like vegan activists, or animal rights proponents or oppressive regulations or even a few broader issues, like whether we ought to continue with ethanol subsidies as an (alleged) attempt at energy independence.

But dig deeper, and I"m willing to bet that the 80-20 Rule would kick in pretty quickly: For every four or five minutes spent analyzing short-term issues, like yesterday"s market prices, you"d be lucky to get even 60 seconds of discussion about the future of livestock production and the challenges faced by the people who raise the animals and process the food products that consumers take for granted will always be sitting there in the meat or dairy case, or on the menu any time we care to purchase them.

I"d argue that everyone who cares about animal agriculture needs to shift their thinking, to start spending more time analyzing the long-term challenges facing producers and processors. For instance: Land use. In 50, or a 100 years, are we going to have the rangeland, the farm ground, the acreage needed to support an industry that may be required to feed hundreds of millions more people than it does today?

Or how about the global marketplace: Is it guaranteed that North America will never hit a ceiling as far as capturing value from shipping beef, pork and chicken overseas? Is it certain that regulatory pressures won"t force thousands of people out of the industry? Is it a no-brainer that the current level of inputs energy, feed, infrastructure will always be available and affordable, no matter what mega-trends develop around the world?

Even though I have the luxury of being able to spend a lot of my time thinking about the ramifications such trends might have on producers, packers and processors, I don"t have any solid answers to any of those questions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people in the business of meat and poultry production who are a heck of lot smarter and more knowledgeable than me.

The industry needs them and you to mimic my former boss: Start spending less time hashing over today"s problems, and more time figuring out the road map needed to navigate the years and decades ahead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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