I love stories about people who created something that has become so commonplace that we never stop to think about its origins. Malcolm McLean fits that description, an inventor who was introduced to me on literally the last two pages of Smarter, Faster, Better that I wrote about yesterday.

Malcolm McLean was credited by Forbes as “one of the few men who changed the world,” but until I read Charles Duhigg’s book I had never heard of him. McLean’s claim to fame: he invented the intermodal shipping container.

It is a decidedly unglamorous product, but the use of it revolutionized commerce. His idea “eventually transformed manufacturing, the transportation industry, and the economies of whole continents,” writes Duhigg. Not bad for a former truck driver who grew up in the Depression.

Before McLean, all cargo on and off of ships was loaded manually. All this repeated handling increased the likelihood of theft, damage, wetness and error. It also cost a great deal of money. McLean’s standardized shipping containers allowed cargo to remain inside the boxes, reducing problems and greatly increasing efficiency. Shipping by container also impacted ships, docks, cranes and entire shipyards as they changed to accommodate more containers and fewer individual loads.

Today, approximately 90% of the world’s trade is shipped via containers that McLean invented!

McLean envisioned his idea by combining the concepts of semi-truck bodies and ships; initially wishing he could drive his truck onto the ship rather than unloading it. Today hundreds of such trucks (aka intermodal shipping containers) fill the hulls of ships and cross the globe.

Creativity doesn’t need to be sexy. The mundane notion of linking trucks and ships doesn’t sound like much, but it had far-reaching implications. What two things can you put together to make something totally new?

— beth triplett

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, 2016 

The Truck Driver who Reinvented Shipping by Anthony Mayo & Nitin Nohria, from In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, October 3, 2005

About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

Dr. beth triplett is the owner of leadership dots, offering coaching, training and consulting for new supervisors. She also shares daily lessons on her leadershipdots blog. Her work is based on the leadership dots philosophy that change happens through the intentional connecting of small steps in the short term to the big picture in the long term.

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