Retail Values for Lean Leadership

Here is a photo of an excellent visual control and reminder to the staff of a local independent bookstore. It says

Talk to everyone.
Greet everyone who comes through the door.
Be out on the floor.
Get to know the books!!

There are strong correlations between retail values and those of lean leadership. The word “retail” comes from the Old French word retaillier meaning to cut off, to clip, to pare, to divide, etc. as in tailoring a piece of clothing. Built into the history and identify of retail is to tailor – make a product fit just right for the customer. Lean thinking also promotes customer-focused tailored delivery of goods and services – just right amount, timing and quality.

Retail invites an intimacy with the customer unlike that of other parts of the consumption-supply chain such as manufacturing, distribution or wholesale. There is a moment of truth every hour and every day with customers in retail. The same can be said of any customer-facing personal or professional service, but the competition in retail is generally more fierce because the purchase decision is less relationship-based and more price and service-based in retail. The rise of hyper-markets, warehouse stores and internet shopping has changed retail, but in also made strong retail values and behaviors such as those in the photo above essential for survival of the independent shop.

A successful lean leader must also have this retail mindset – a keen sense of customer intimacy and always being in the moment of truth to delivery a quality product or service. Definitions of lean always being with some form of “customer focus”. Yet the customer experience aspect is perhaps one of the least developed areas within lean thinking. We can attribute this partially to the “sales v. operations” culture that exists in many organizations, as well as the distance most senior leaders with backgrounds in engineering, finance, marketing or operations have from the retail experience. Just as operations executives should spend time learning on the shop floor or engineering floor, business leaders should spend time learning on the retail floor.

A partial list of “retail values for lean leadership”:

  • Be out on the floor
  • Be intimate with your customers
  • Know your products
  • Sell right now
  • Sell in small quantities
  • Make time for customers
  • Have can-do attitude
  • Make it right

An idea central to TQM, kaizen and lean comes to us from Dr. Deming – the internal customer. Lean leaders need to practice these same retail values within the organization to sell change, engagement and energetic commitment to each other and the end customers.
If this bookshop looks empty of customers, it’s because the patrons politely stepped out while I was snapping the photo.


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