This month's cover story was born of two unrelated characters: a weary Louisiana lumberman and a barely used dinner plate.

Craig Webb Photo: James Kegley Let's start with the plate. It was part of a collection of formal china and stemware that my wife and I picked for our wedding in 1979. Over the next 25 years, our tastes changed, so last year, we boxed up the plates and glassware and drove 300 miles from Washington to a company near Greensboro, N.C., called Replacements.

Founded in 1981 by a china-loving guy named Bob Page, Replacements contains more than 12 million pieces of china and glass. If you broke the handle off a teacup in your mother's treasured, 50-year-old formal set, this is where you get the replacement. If you're burdened with wedding china you never came to love, this is where you sell it. For our Minton Penrose china, we cleared more than $700.

That visit led to "Steal This Idea!" (page 31) It's our staff's look beyond this magazine's usual field of expertise, the LBM industry, at insights and innovations that you can apply at your company. When I saw Replacements' 415,000 square feet of storage space, I thought: Wow, if a lumberyard has challenges controlling inventory, how does this place keep track?

We found inspiration from such diverse sources as an online shoe store, a limousine driver training program, Hollywood screenwriters, and a British grocery chain. We hope this list will prompt you to notice good ideas whenever they fall your way. Like Isaac Newton and the discovery of gravity, the apple that just dropped on your head could lead to something big.

That leads to this story's second character, the owner of a small LBM dealership whom I met in Louisiana last year. "I'm 45 years old, and I've been running my yard for more than 20 years," he told me. "My fondest wish is that I could take Saturdays off."

It's a common story for a group that jokes about working "half a day" when they labor from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That willingness to put in the hours needed to secure business success (or, these days, survival) merits both praise and concern. Clearly, it's wonderful that LBM people are dedicated to their jobs. But danger arises when the owner is so focused on the business at hand that his horizon ends at the lumberyard's gates.

At most successful dealerships I've visited, I've found lumberyard executives who are eager to learn their peers' latest discoveries. But I suspect this group is outnumbered by another crowd: execs who want to improve their businesses but are too frazzled to come up with ideas. For this group, I have what might sound like a radical idea: Get out of the office and do something new.

Plant a garden. Take up fishing. Study a foreign language. It doesn't matter what you do so much as it's a fresh experience and unrelated to work. The goal is to get out of your usual mind-set and experience new things.

Too busy for even that small step? Then shake up your routine. Take a different route to work. Watch a TV movie with the sound turned off and supply your own dialogue. Buy a magazine you've never read before. My wife and I have a long-running game in which we try to come up with limericks containing the word coelacanth. (Pronounced SEE-lah-kanth. It's a rare bony fish whose name makes the limerick challenge extra interesting.)

At the very least, open your eyes. Bob Erwin, president of Lee Resources, says one of the best ways to find good workers is simply to pay attention to the people who serve you as you shop. Baristas and shoe salesmen might not know a thing about 2x4s, but it's far easier to take someone with a can-do, customer-first attitude and teach them about 2x4s than the other way around.

It's strange but true: Sometimes the best way to think about work is to stop thinking about it. Lumber may be at the center of your world, but it shouldn't be the only thing in it.

Craig Webb, Editor 202.736.3307
[email protected]

Photo: James Kegley