About a dozen years ago, with tongues at least slightly in cheek, business author Ian Altman's two kids informed him that he was a "bad father."
"They told me that although we had gone to Disney World a few times, they had heard me talk about how much fun Disneyland was when I visited as a youngster growing up in Southern California," he says. In response to the light-hearted "bad father" comments from his son and daughter, he, of course, planned a trip to the Mouse House in Anaheim.
While the family was planning the vacation, a complication arose. Altman's son, 12 at the time, was diagnosed with celiac disease. The disorder, also referred to as gluten intolerance, affects roughly one out of every 120 people. The Altman boy's diagnosis came at a time when the "gluten-free" dietary trend had not yet gained widespread traction. In 2004, gluten-free menus were a rarity.
For Altman and his family, the challenges of dealing with celiac disease on the road soon became clear. They arrived at Disneyland early, and as they toured the theme park, hunger began to build. "If you've been, you know the amazing smells from the various food vendors, bakeries, and so forth," Altman says. First, they came across a stand selling sugared churros. Nope. Not gluten-free. Next, they walked by the bakery. Nope. Although some of the items may have been gluten-free, they couldn't risk the possibility of cross-contamination.
And so it went until they turned a corner, and there it was. A popcorn stand. "Dad, can I get a large?" Altman's son asked. "At that point, I was about ready to pay the guy to follow us around the park with his pushcart for the rest of the day," Altman notes. That's when it hit him. The popcorn vendor didn't just have something Altman's son wanted. He had something the boy needed. And it got Altman to thinking.
That popcorn vendor had a key advantage over the other food purveyors at Disneyland. Further, he didn't have to do a thing to gain that advantage. The only thing he hadn't done (which Altman would have recommended) was to put a big "gluten-free" sign on his cart.
A few years later, as more eateries and food manufacturers started catching on to the gluten-free opportunity, that is exactly what some of them did. The best example might be General Mills. Sales of its long-standing Chex brand were declining. The cereal maker reversed that decline by doing essentially nothing more than calling consumers' attention to one key attribute of its product that had become increasingly important: It tweaked its packaging ever so slightly to add "Gluten-free. Same great taste."
"Well, of course it was the same great taste," says Altman. "It was the exact same product." All General Mills did was call attention to the fact that it was gluten-free.
The point to be made, though, is not about celiac disease, Disneyland's food vendors, or even the gluten-free trend. It is about the value of recognizing something advantageous about your operation that already exists. Something that you do in serving your customers that you do better than any of your competitors do.
It has been almost 30 years since Jim Morehouse, then of A.T. Kearney in Chicago, first began writing and speaking about the opportunity to make a logistics operation part of a company's competitive arsenal (as opposed to a cost center). Still, many folks grapple with exactly how to do that.
Perhaps Altman's story can help you identify where to begin making your logistics operation a competitive advantage for your company. You know what you do. You know what your competitors do. You know what your customers want (and need). Now, just ask yourself what is it you currently do better—ideally, much better—than your competition.
Answer that question, and you will have discovered your "gluten-free."