Lean Thinking and Acting Sells Blueberries

By on December 21, 2012
Lean Thinking and Acting

In an earlier Lean segment of this blog, I discussed the impact that employee engagement has on the reactions you and I have when going shopping in retail stores. We know what employee engagement looks and sounds like and we certainly also know what employee disengagement looks and sounds like. You and I go back to retail stores where sales associates pay attention to us, where they’re engaged in serving us and we do everything possible to stay away from places where it’s obvious that serving us is of little importance.

Lean thinking can transform customer unfriendly work environments into places that you and I love to shop in. What it takes are managers and supervisors who understand what Lean thinking is and who accept its core beliefs as applied to a retail work environment. And what are these core beliefs? Here they are:

  • Sales associates are the most important people in any retail organization. They’re important for two primary reasons:
    • They do the organization’s most important work, serving customers.
    • They’re the organization’s most important source of information on how to improve sales.
  • The most important job responsibilities of retail managers and supervisors are:
    • To be on the floor (in Lean language, “Genchi Genbutsu,” being where the action is.)
    • To continually reinforce those sales associate behaviors that reflect high degrees of engagement with customers.
    • To continually demonstrate their high degree of respect for sales associate knowledge and creativity.
    • To implement methods of continually mining sales associate knowledge and creativity.

When managers and supervisors understand and practice Lean thinking great things happen. For example, here’s an experience my wife Dolores and I had at our favorite grocery store – you know, the one that gave us the free roses I mentioned in an earlier blog post.

Fresh BlueberriesWe were going through the checkout lane and when the clerk checking us out picked up a package of blueberries to scan, he stopped, looked at it, and said, “This one looks like it doesn’t have quite enough blueberries in it. I don’t want you to get short-changed.” With that, he rang a bell, another associate came up almost immediately, he handed the box of blueberries to the associate and said, “This one looks like it’s short on berries. Get another that’s fuller.” A minute or so later the box with more berries in it appeared and our checkout continued.

So at this grocery story, this island of incredible customer service, as the old Sonny and Cher song has it, “the beat goes on.” Dolores and I continue to see, over and over again, the power of employee engagement, creating absolutely indelible impressions. And we continue buying their blueberries.

Developing a workforce that leaves customers with indelible impressions is simple – and it takes hard work. But it definitely can happen. There’s no mystery about what it takes to make it happen. It just takes believing in the power of Lean thinking, knowing how to transform Lean thinking into the creation of indelible impressions, and the tenacity to make this kind of thinking and behaving stick.

Employees whose thinking processes have become “Lean” are continually looking for ways to improve work processes. They are very definitely 100% present, body and mind, when they’re on the job. They have high degrees of confidence in the value of their individual intelligence and creativity and they know that the organization for whom they work values their intelligence and creativity. They have also learned on-the-job that nothing is quite as enjoyable, as energizing, as knowing, through experience, not just words, that your company really values your creativity and intelligence. There’s nothing as enjoyable and energizing as knowing that that your future job security is something that you can impact directly; that you have made a direct contribution to the profitability of the company that pays the salary of you and your colleagues. And, yes, by the way, to increasing the job security of both yourself and your team mates. In a word, there’s nothing quite so ego-building as being recognized by your peers and managers as an active contributor to the future success of the organization.

How typical are high degrees of employee engagement? Very atypical. How many employees are active contributors? Not many. A study conducted by TowersPerrin in 2009 showed that only 21% of employees were fully engaged in their work and, further, that 38% were partially to fully disengaged. What are the implications of numbers of this sort? That’s simple. No company with a 38% rate of employee disengagement is going to be successful in today’s economy. Not unless they have an absolute lock on their marketplace, serving customers who have no alternative places at which to shop. Very, very few organizations have a lock on the marketplace like, say, the US Postal Service and even its grip is getting weak with the growth of competitors like e-mail, FedEx and UPS.

I look forward to continuing this discussion in our next Lean segment of this blog. I’ll be reviewing some very specific actions that retail organizations can take that will build focus, engagement, and, as a result, sales and profitability. Here’s one action that easy to take: Use the “Idea Board” as a tool to build employee engagement. View a short video containing interviews with highly engaged employees talking about the power of the IdeaBoard.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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