In 1956, Malcom McLean was sitting at the docks waiting to unload his truck.
He owned a fleet of trucks but he still liked to drive himself.
Except for the waiting at the docks – that part drove him crazy.
The longshoremen had to unload each truck piece-by-piece, and then wait while the crane loaded it on to the ship before unloading the next piece.
McLean and every other trucker would be queuing up for a day, then sitting around while the whole slow process happened.
In fact, it could take two weeks to unload and reload an entire ship.
However fast McLean did his job, he still had to waste time sitting around the docks.
He imagined filling a large container with cargo and hauling it to the docks.
Then at the docks, all they’d have to do was lift the entire container on to the ship.
And at the other port, just unload the container and haul it away.
It was the beginning of a brilliant idea, and that’s exactly where most people stop.
We have an idea and never take it any further because of the problems.
But McLean began solving the problems.
The first problem was: how to fit the container with the attached wheels and chassis on to a ship?
His answer was to separate the container, so the wheels and chassis stayed with the truck on the dock.
That way, the containers could all fit together like building blocks.
The second problem was: how would the containers fit on the ship with all the other cargo?
His answer was to have ships that carry nothing but containers.
That way, they’d all fit easily – he’d make all containers a regulation size so they just slotted together.
And so he sold his trucking business and put all his money into solving the problems of containers.
He bought an old ship and converted it into taking nothing but containers.
He allowed anyone to copy his idea and build containers.
But they must be: eight foot wide, eight foot tall, and either 20 or 40 foot long, so that all containers would fit in with all other containers.
And as the authorities began to see the sense in McLean’s thinking, old-fashioned ports began changing to container ports.
Truck drivers didn’t have to wait, they drove in and the crane took the entire container in one lift.
Loading freight on to ships was 90% cheaper and 90% faster.
It cost $5.86 per ton to load loose cargo, but just 16 cents per ton to load his containers.
A ship could be unloaded and reloaded in a day.
By 1970, McLean had 36 ships taking 27,000 containers between 30 ports.
All the containers fitted neatly on ships, on trucks and on trains, and each ship could take several thousand containers.
By 2017, 90% of the world’s goods are moved by container shipping.
In fact, we take it for granted – we think it’s so obvious we don’t even question it.
All because McLean didn’t have a good idea and stop there.
He had a good idea and began solving the problems.
And that’s the difference between something we just talk about in the pub and something that actually happens in real life.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.