Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Box

The Box is a highly acclaimed book by Marc Levinson about how the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger. The shipping container is an innocuous piece of equipment - as he calls it - the standard container has all the romance of a tin can.

Cut to 50 odd years later, the container is an ubiquitous symbol of shipping today. Till the time containers came to the shipping world - the entire process of shipping was by a process known as 'break bulk' - another fascinating story. How the container came to break the back of this trade and make shipping easier forms the story of the book.

However, the takeaway for me was three fold.

One, the idea came from someone outside the industry. A person who ran a trucking business. His name was Malcolm McLean. And he was trying to solve a different problem - that of turning around his trucks faster and getting them from one place to another in the most efficient manner. As he went through this process trying to cut costs, his original idea was to have trailers that can be shipped directly onto a ship by a truck to be towed by a different truck at the other side. Quickly, he figured that the wheels would take unnecessary space and got around to just the container.

Second, making the container did not solve the problem. He had to think beyond just the container - unloading, loading, transporting and none of these had ready solutions then. No cranes. No trucks. And so on. He had to solve a series of problems, before it became as obvious as it now.

The third, was the generation of an insight. As the book says, his fundamental insight was that the business of a shipping company was not sailing ships, but moving cargo. And the moment you look at the industry from this lens, everything changes.

The fourth was - that innovation is often non glamorous - it is going after a problem and solving it the best possible way. And it happens along the way - things do not fall in place right at the start. An attitude of lets get it done along the way is essential.

All in all, a fascinating book worth reading...

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