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December 05, 2005

Save your packing peanuts

When my new crystal bowl / laptop / sno-globe arrives in a box full of packing peanuts, I dump them into a trash bag and drop them off at our reception desk. All of the old timers at Logos do this as a matter of course, because the peanuts get reused in outgoing shipments.

In the fourteen years since our first software was shipped from her kitchen table my mother (who still runs our shipping department) has only purchased packing material once. And then only in desperation and shame.

We ship hundreds of packages every week, but we don’t waste resources doing it. The inner boxes in which our retail boxes arrive are intentionally sized, and reused, for outgoing multi-pack shipments of assembled product. The regular recipients of bubble-wrap and packing peanuts in our small downtown know that we will be by to collect it. This does not save a lot of money, but the savings add up over time and it is a very practical example of recycling an otherwise worthless and litter-prone material. Who could object?

Our newer employees, it appears.

Recently an email to the whole company explained that we are getting low on packaging material and encouraged everyone to bring in their peanuts. The next day my assistant told me that the grapevine was buzzing with indignation. It was unseemly, I heard third-hand, that a successful company like ours would ask people to bring in their packing peanuts. Why, I buy clean new peanuts when I ship things, someone said.

Respecting the anonymity of the grapevine, I asked my assistant not to tell me who these whiners were. “Just have their department manager fire them all,” I declared. “I don’t want to make it personal, but if someone thinks this recycling is stupid, we can’t afford to have them hanging around making other wasteful spending decisions.”

A moment’s reflection caused me to redirect the judgment, though. Most of our employees were hired after our move into beautiful wood-trimmed offices and during a period of sustained profitability. They had not been around when everyone sat at folding tables and used shower paneling for whiteboards. They did not remember when your paycheck arrived with a request to wait a day before depositing it. They could not imagine the office without a free one-button latte machine.

Along the way to becoming a company that spends on things it can afford – morale boosting free lattes – I let us become a company that wants to spend on things it should not afford – packaging peanuts that are otherwise available for free.

Corporate culture needs to be cultivated. It needs to be planted and watered and pruned and weeded in every new hire. In a fast growing company the new hires can quickly outnumber the old timers and without direction they will redefine the culture. I did not give that direction and I let the scrappy, frugal part of our culture wither away. And now I need to plant it again.

Posted by Bob Pritchett at December 5, 2005 07:00 AM

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