Yes, it’s for sale. No, you can’t buy it.

By on November 3, 2015
Can't Buy This

As Dolores and I entered the large office supply store in our neighborhood we were greeted by an employee who, with a smile on her face, asked us, “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” I told her that I needed some ink cartridges for my printer and that I’d like to get their house brand because the price was always better than the name brand. She agreed, led me to the shelf with generic printer cartridges, asked me what kind of printer I had, and, pointing to the shelf with the ink cartridges I needed, asked politely, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” I told her there wasn’t, thanked her for her help, and picked up several of the cartridges that I needed.

Walking toward the checkout counter, I remarked to Dolores, “Now that’s the kind of service that really builds sales.

Little did we know it that we were about to enter an alternate universe.

The employee at the checkout counter greeted us politely, saying “Did you find everything you needed?” I told him that we had and he replied, “Our generic ink cartridges really are a good buy.” I agreed. He scanned the first cartridge. Nothing happened. No price came up on the register. He did it again. Still nothing. He apologized and said, “I need to go get the manager.

Sporting a demeanor that suggested, “I can take care of this problem,” the manager took one of the cartridges, scanned it, waited, nothing happened. He tried it again. Still nothing. He commented “I have to go check on something” and walked to the customer service counter.

A couple of minute later he returned and told us, “I’m very sorry but we can’t sell you these ink cartridges.” He explained, “For some reason, even though the cartridges are on the shelf their bar code hasn’t been entered into our computer system.” At this point my emotions were vacillating between exasperation and anger. I tried to restrain myself and in as calm a tone as I could muster, said, “Help me understand what you’re saying. You have a product on the shelf. That product has your store’s bar code on it yet you can’t sell it.

The manager replied, “Yes. As I just said, even though the cartridges are on our shelf their bar code isn’t as yet in our computer system so we can’t sell them.” At this point in the exchange, I was becoming angry.

I replied sarcastically, “You’d agree wouldn’t you that most customers would assume that when merchandise is on your store’s shelves that it can actually be purchased.” He agreed but said, “We still can’t sell it” and added, “We do have those brand name cartridges you need.

Then it occurred to me that I could give him an out – a way to get back into the universe in which sales are made.

I made a suggestion. “Look, I drove five miles to your store with the expectation of being able to buy some generic ink cartridges. You have these cartridges on your store shelf but you can’t sell them because of a problem with your computer system. How about we do this. Sell me the name brand cartridges for the price of the generics and we’ll call it a day.

He gave me one of those looks that scream out, “How can I get rid of this guy!” and replied, “No, I can’t do that.

Hearing that, Dolores and I left the store and drove home resolving to never shop there again.

I’ve thought about this experience a number of times, asking myself what it means in terms of individual and organizational behavior. Here’s my take on it.

For starters, It’s an almost perfect example of what happens when an organization’s operating systems aren’t robust enough to prevent the kind of absurd experience Dolores and I had. With a stronger interface between the store’s merchandise stocking system and the work of individual employees, this problem never would have occurred. Standardized work documents, rigidly adhered to by all employees, regarding merchandise restocking procedures would have prevented it. The merchandise wouldn’t have been put on the shelf before it was entered into the store’s computer system.

It’s also an almost perfect example of what happens when individuals in an organization don’t have the flexibility needed to respond immediately to critical work process challenges. If the store manager had the personal authority to sell the cartridges at a discounted price satisfied customers would have walked out of his store, ready to return again and make more purchases.

The experience we had in this office supply store is an example of what happens when an organization’s DNA lacks those two elements that are at the very heart of Lean Thinking, rigidity and flexibility.

When these two seemingly incompatible qualities, rigidity and flexibility, become part of an organization’s DNA, great things happen. Customers are satisfied. Sales are made. Organizations prosper.

Our Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of training and consulting resources that can bring the DNA of Lean Thinking to your organization. This is the well-tested process we use with clients to make this happen:

Driving the Implementation of a Sustainable Lean Transformation

I’d value the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. I’m confident you’d find this time very well spent. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 or send me an e-mail at and let’s talk.

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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