Progress? What Progress?

2013 has arrived, but you may not have fully adjusted to the turning of the calendar. Some of you are just coming to accept that the world didn’t end on Dec. 21; others are still breathing sighs of relief that U.S. waterfront labor is still at work, although no one knows how long this will last.

Many folks are still talking about the recent performance of our federal representatives, who — in what can best be described as a circus act while balancing on a thin, knife-edged slope, with great danger on both sides and deadly rocks and people-eating creatures down below — at the last possible moment took little action that many people don’t understand, that others misunderstand and that still others haven’t been concerned enough to pay much attention.

Some of you will have trouble for the next few weeks remembering to change the year when you write checks — if you still use them.

Regardless of where you are on this continuum, the one constant we all face is that time will march forward, and each of us has the choice to adapt to this cosmic force or to fall further behind.

This is an issue that has plagued the container shipping industry for at least as long as I’ve been involved, and my first job began in January 1971. I’ll never forget one of the “first rules” of the shipping business imparted to me by one of my new colleagues.

Varkas was an old sea dog who had worked on Greek merchant vessels before World War II (and was in the Greek Resistance during the war — his stories were amazing!). Before I started a small project for him, he instructed me to photocopy any document before discarding it. This was in the day when copy machines were pretty new gadgets and carbon paper was the norm for making copies, but think about that instruction for a moment.

We’re still like that today. Our strong tendency is to be risk-averse and to look backward, not forward. The past, whether good or bad, is known and therefore more comfortable and, of course, completely predictable, because we already know what happened. The future is always unknown and, therefore, uncertain, unpredictable and maybe uncomfortable.

The problem seems to be that in our quest for certainty, we follow the maxim that some believe can lead to insanity: We do the same things over and over again in the hope of attaining a different or better result. It’s not unlike the TV commercial where the guy enters his former apartment to watch a football game in his former good-luck spot because “it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.”  Really?

We must move away from these old models and look more closely at the methods of out-of-the-box thinkers and innovators who have made the needle not just move forward, but jump to altogether new levels. I’m thinking, of course, about people such as Malcom McLean and Steve Jobs, both of whom, in vastly different ways and in vastly different times, made their industries and the world around them change in astoundingly, revolutionary ways. The impacts of what each of these men did continue to propel our world forward, with no reversals and with continuing benefits.

I’m always encouraged and energized by the coming of each new year. I don’t think of myself as a Pollyanna, but I’m typically optimistic and I believe we can always do better. The fact that so often we don’t is disappointing, but is nevertheless motivating. It provides enormous opportunity for others to move into the gaps.

As we move into 2013, I’m hopeful things improve, although my practical side says things probably won’t change much. I do wish a great year for all of you and your families and your businesses. Things will be what we make them, so at the end of day, it really is up to you.

I hope to see many of you at the TPM Conference in Long Beach, Calif., in March. We’ll be talking about many of these issues, and we look forward to connecting with you at the conference.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at


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