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Strategy + Business

Don’t clean your dirty shelves

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Andrew Gorecki
Managing Director - Retail Directions
November 9, 2015

In the early 1990s I worked at McEwans, which later morphed into Bunnings. To learn more about the business and how it operates, I would help out every Saturday on the shop floor at a branch located near where I lived.

One Saturday, I noticed dirt on the shelves in the paint department. My initial reaction was to clean them myself, but then it occurred to me: what if other stores have the same problem?


As a proponent of Total Quality Management (TQM), I asked myself what Deming would do in this situation?

So, on Monday, back in the office, I alerted our Retail Operations Manager so he could handle it via the normal operating process. He took the matter seriously and sent a memo to all store managers reminding them about the need to keep the shelves clean.

However, the following Saturday the shelves were still dirty. The memo didn’t work. I should have known better – Deming had warned that appeals for better performance serve no purpose.

The Operations Manager then decided to tell his regional managers directly about the shelve issue, expecting face-to-face communication to be more effective than a memo – but the shelves in my store remained dirty. Clearly, the business process in effect allowed the problem to persist.

Two important lessons can be drawn from the shelf cleaning fiasco.

Firstly, it pays to adopt the principle of non-interference in such situations. I could’ve easily cleaned the shelves myself, but instead I chose to work via the system. I wanted to ensure that our process in this space worked well throughout the store network.

Had I impatiently cleaned the shelves, I would’ve lost my monitoring system – destroying the evidence and most likely leaving dirty shelves in the paint department within other stores. Being constantly confronted by the problem meant that I had to keep trying to improve the system.

The second lesson relates to the importance of operational definitions.

In dealing with the dirty shelves, our first step should’ve been to define what a clean shelf actually means rather than just asking for it to ‘be clean’.

That definition could have called for cleaning every fortnight. Or it could have stipulated that no more than one piece of rubbish should be allowed per two square metres of shelving. Whatever the definition, at least the store team would’ve known what constituted acceptable work in this area.

TQM, which focuses on boosting the quality of management, relies on a number of principles, but you can make notable progress within your business by embracing just the three above: don’t work directly on an issue if you have the opportunity for systemic improvement, avoid appealing to staff, and make sure that your team knows what constitutes acceptable work.

For example, sending an email to your office team asking them to keep their work space tidy will most likely result in little action. In contrast, the same message fortified with a set of photos illustrating the required standard sets a clear guideline.

Similarly, telling your store team to greet your customers won’t work either. But, provide them with the relevant script, possibly supported by a video showing the expected behaviour and you’ll likely get better results.

In both cases, you define what constitutes acceptable work.

Establishing a clear operational definition and ensuring understanding of what constitutes acceptable work requires just one additional ingredient to be truly effective. You need to communicate the benefits of adherence as well as the consequences of not following the policy. People need to know that management will ensure compliance with the standards.

To manage in such a way requires a shift in management practices and this never comes easy. However, let’s remember Deming’s comment that, “transformation is not mandatory, but neither is survival.”

To sum it up, let’s go back to the dirty shelves. If you have operational issues in your retail business, don’t try to correct them directly. Instead, figure out what process changes must be made to reduce or eliminate the inefficiencies and faults in a systemic way, across the entire business. So, whatever you do – don’t clean the dirty shelves yourself.

As Michael Gerber said in his book E-Myth, ‘Don’t work in the business; work on the business’.

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About the author

Whether it is retail, technology, current events or entrepreneurship – Andrew Gorecki brings an unconventional approach to the subject matter. He provides a compelling alternative narrative, challenging mainstream views, and is sought out by industry insiders for his strategic advice and insights. Andrew co-founded the retail software company Retail Directions in 1994, and was a non-executive director of Reece Ltd and its subsidiary companies between 2008 and 2017. His latest book, Gearing Up for Success covers the critically important secrets of success that our schools choose not to teach.

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