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Lessons from the Invention of Sliced Bread

Lessons from the Invention of Sliced Bread

“It’s the best thing since sliced bread!” Cliches like this stick around for a reason. To this day, we hear this statement everywhere. So, arguably, sliced bread must have been considered a pretty darn good invention. Or at least one would think. But what do we really know about how sliced bread was invented? I decided to find out.

In 1912, an Iowa inventor named Otto Rohwedder invented a bread slicer. Bakers of course declared it totally useless, since sliced bread would quickly grow stale. For most people — end of story. But not for Rohwedder.

For 13 years, he searched for ways to hold the slices together, including — believe it or not — hat pins. It wasn’t until 1927 that he partnered with Frank Bench of the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri. Together they created the Rohwedder Bread Slicer, which not only sliced the bread, but wrapped it too, which kept the bread fresh.

And so, the Chillicothe Baking Company was the first to sell sliced bread in 1928. In 1930, the first commercial machines were used in the US and UK under the Wonderbread brand. And by 1933, over 80% of all bread sold was pre-sliced.

So what are the lessons from this?

  • Don’t think “better,” think “different”: Rohwedder decided to eliminate a manual task rather than improve it. He didn’t focus on making it easier to slice bread, he removed the need to slice it at all by selling it pre-sliced! In Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith said, “It’s fine to do something 15% better until someone else does it 100% different.” Or as Henry Ford put it, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
  • Just Do It!: Rohwedder built countless prototypes and persisted for years. He kept moving forward trying different things. Award-winning design firm IDEO calls this “enlightened trial and error.” Besides, as Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
  • Don’t Be Put off by Gaps; Address Them: Instead of being discouraged by the gaps in his product, Rohwedder relentlessly sought to address them, applying the same creativity that he brought to the original invention.
  • Seek More Brainpower: It wasn’t until he partnered with Frank Bench that Rohwedder made a significant breakthrough. Organizations can do this by leveraging the collective intelligence of their employees, suppliers, and customers.
  • Embrace Technology: It was Bench’s technology that enabled the combination bread slicer and wrapper. Is technology a commodity? Rohwedder and Bench didn’t think so. Neither do Apple, Wal-Mart, or Google.

Through these timeless and proven strategies, Otto Rohwedder transformed an entire industry and the consumer lifestyle that continues to this day. In fact, next year will be the 100th anniversary of his first model.

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Jerry Manas
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Jerry Manas is an internationally best-selling author, speaker, and consultant. He is frequently cited by leading voices in the world of business, including legendary management guru Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence”), who often references Manas’s bestselling book Napoleon on Project Management for its insights on simplicity and character, and Pat Williams, Senior VP of the Orlando Magic, who called Manas’s book Managing the Gray Areas “a new path for leaders.” Jerry’s latest book is The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook (McGraw-Hill), which Judith E. Glaser, noted author of Conversational Intelligence, touted as “the first book dedicated to what is essentially the drivetrain of organizations—the effective use of its people toward its most important activities.” Through his consulting company, The Marengo Group, Jerry helps clients maximize their organizational people resources, leading to a grater capacity to innovate, a more value-focused workforce, and an increased ability to adapt to change. He is a popular speaker at events around the world, speaking on lessons from history, resource planning, organizational change, and other topics. Jerry’s work has been highlighted in a variety of publications, including the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Sun Times, National Post, Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, and others.