"Pushing the envelope" is a phrase that gained popularity with American test pilots such as Chuck Yeager and John Glenn in the 1950s. Each aircraft they flew was said to have an "envelope" of performance. In other words, it was designed to fly safely up to a certain speed for a certain distance at a certain altitude. The job of test pilots was to "push the envelope" by making the plane go faster, farther and higher.

To me, "pushing the envelope" means pushing the boundaries and pushing yourself to maximize your advantage to be better, faster and smarter and to get the results you want — in business and in life.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of speed in business. This century's business is dominated by speed. Speed is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity. Having a great product isn't enough anymore. People expect things faster, cheaper and better. Every part of your business needs to be up to speed.

Take customer service, for example. You need to speed up the time handling customer complaints. When you serve your customers in a timely fashion, you end up with satisfied customers. Poor customer service equals dissatisfied customers. My motto has always been "Taking care of customers is taking care of business." If you make customers No. 1, they will make you No. 1. Speed allows you to differentiate in the marketplace. Amazon's emphasis on speed is a great example.

If businesses don't think fast and act fast, they get passed like jalopies on the freeway. Companies like Blockbuster, which stayed the same for years, were passed up by video-streaming subscription services like Netflix.

Mainstay companies like Sears, Kodak, Xerox, Radio Shack and Toys "R" Us are all shells of what they used to be. Businesses have to keep up or get passed up.

Kmart and Walmart both started in 1962, but compare the two companies today. Walmart has continued to make changes and reinvent itself, which is reflected in its sales of more than $510 billion. Kmart, on the other hand, remained stagnant, and it's struggled (after being acquired by Sears) in and out of bankruptcy.

IBM and Hewlett-Packard got passed up by Dell when it started selling computers directly to consumers, instead of through stores.

We live in a world of instant gratification, so consumers expect speed. They can't wait until the next great smartphone with expanded capabilities.

There will always be a group of people who demand the latest and the greatest, and there will be a forward-thinking company ready to serve them.

An important component of speed is getting your workforce — employees, contractors and vendors — up to speed by training them to complete tasks faster, innovate and share best-practice ideas. When you hire the right person, you're only halfway right. Train them correctly, consistently and constantly to move at a rapid pace with ease.

One caveat: Never sacrifice quality for speed. Faster is only better if the result is a top-notch product.

Mackay's Moral: Business has a need for speed.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.