Why I'm not ashamed of Wal-Mart

I’m getting a little defensive over the Wal-Mart “thing” due to living in the Northeast and Germany, where Wal-Mart has been chewed up and spit out. I have to admit that I hate having the Wal-Mart conversation with many people in both of these places. Most typically, they boastfully say, “Well, Wal-Mart couldn’t succeed here.” I’m not completely sure why that is something to be proud of in itself. I think that folks are saying it because the big company didn’t overrun their town or country and turn everyone into mindless (money-saving) zombies with small businesses left in the wake. But that’s not the point of my post… that’s another conversation that maybe I’ll find interesting enought to write about at some point. My point is that

    • Even though they are a very large corporation and I’m quite sure there are people involved with Wal-Mart that have both deliberately made unethical decisions and mistakenly made bad decisions
    • And yes, turning a ship that big is hard, and they can’t react in the way they used to be able to react
    • And yes, they have lost some of their charm with Mr. Walton gone

… I still respect what Wal-Mart has done and I’m proud they are from Arkansas… my home state.

I’ll give you my top 5 reasons why I respect Wal-Mart:

  1. Before Ben & Jerry’s, Google, and Southwest, Wal-Mart shared success throughout the ranks. Yes, across the South, there are people who were cashiers at Wal-Mart who are millionaires now. Sam Walton believed in his employees and rewarded them with stock in the company through ESOPs and stock grants.
    • Note… The company doesn’t have that leverage for employees now due to their size. This is a law of nature, not something evil they are doing to their employees. 
  2. Sam Walton was a communicator, and he built a company that values communication. Being from Arkansas, I saw examples of this from friends who worked there. I knew about the Saturday morning meetings that drove the business for years and years. I know about the incredible satellite network used for communicating across the country to all the remote places where Wal-Mart was.
  3. Wal-Mart defined relentless focus on execution. An example: Their distribution centers lay out let stores have the minimum amount of space dedicated to storing inventory without risking selling inventory… they used 40% of what most competitors did. Why? They knew that stores were about selling and they wanted maximum space to selling space. Wal-Mart knows what is important to them and then execute with keen focus against that.
  4. Wal-Mart is not a slave to their systems. Their systems are built and bought to support their business. (I was a vendor to them… this one I know keenly.) For example, their retail systems were designed to give local flexibility with centralized control. Stores were allowed to adjust prices as needed to respond to local competition, but only to a certain point, as defined by the business objectives set in Bentonville. In all my interactions with Wal-Mart, I have to say they are the best at being the master of their systems.
  5. Sam Walton set up the company to learn. This is one reason they’ve struggled more in recent years, there are very few people from whom they can learn. Mr. Walton set the company up to be driven by benchmarking themselves across industries and departments. Every single group was expected to benchmark with people that were the tops in their areas… across marketing, communications, HR, retail, distribution/logistics, etc.

I recently learned from the book What I Learned from Sam*Walton that there was an internal rally cry at Sam’s Club, HEATKTE, which stood for “high expectations are the key to everything”. This is how Mr. Walton ran the company. He expected more… all the time… from everyone. He was tough, but inspirational, and he built an outstanding company that has been the most successful company in my lifetime.

Please know I am not saying Wal-Mart is perfect. I don’t think this. I also don’t think they deserve the ire they have stirred up in people. Before you bash them, make sure you know the facts. The company has done a great deal of good and are a model company in many ways, particularly looking at the first 4/5ths of their existence.

OK, I’ve gotten that off my chest. Feel free to hurl insults my way for standing up for the big evil American corporation.

What can we learn from how surgeons learn? BE A TEAM!

[Aside… At 3:20a I shouldn’t be doing this, but I don’t learn…]

I’m reading Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. There’s a great description of a then recent study (book from 2002) from HBS on learning curves in different industries. One “industry” that the HBS students decided to study was the medical industry — surgeons specifically. In this case, they followed 18 cardiac surgeons as they learned a new technique of minimally invasive surgery.

The surprise from this study was that the surgeon on one the fastest learning teams was relatively inexperienced to the surgeon on one of the slowest learning teams. The fast learning surgeon:

  • Picked specific team members and kept a consistent team for max learnings
  • Conducted a dry run before the first case
  • Scheduled six operations for the first week to increase knowledge retention between cases
  • Held a planning and update meeting before each surgery and a debrief afterwards
  • Tracked results carefully

The slow learning surgeon did not carry out these points.

It reminded me of one of the areas where we are struggling a bit now as we grow. Folks are understandably frustrated by the number of people with whom they “have to” coordinate now. I’ve often thought about this and wondered how you inspire the excitement of working with a team more. Sure, it is easier to be “fully in control” yourself, but you miss so much learning and improved solutions… and really collaboration fun. Yes, it takes work… and more work than if you were able to do things yourself. You need to have the dry runs, and the planning and debrief meetings. Basically, without this kind of structure, you do have the overhead of a team, without the rewards.

Hope this spurs some thoughts for you as it did for me.

What is on my shirt…

What do you pack
to pursue a dream?

… as I go off to pursue a dream! (By the way, this is written on my shirt in our new Santa’s sleigh font. Perfect for this thought…)

Just say no: the art of making decisions

First, my apology, and then we’ll move on. I am sorry for not posting in so long. I do not know what happened. I enjoy writing and I’m not doing enough of it. My days have turn into evenings, which turn into nights, which turn into early mornings, which turn into 2-3 hours of sleep. Most of you know that I am OK on little sleep, but I need 4-5 hours to feel good, and I haven’t been getting that lately. I think the question becomes… what have I been doing?

We’ve been working on budgets at Spreadshirt. We are doing a more extensive round than before, so that means lots of meeting and work. Along with this, we are also talking about our priorities for 2008. These are always fun processes because you are talking about the future, but they are also wrought with one word, “No.”

“No” is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile. First, let’s take the definition of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary says no is “a denial”, “a refusal”, “the negative side or party”, and “a person who votes against a proposal”. Ouch, such harsh words for two little characters. But, it shows how powerful language is. These two letters often bring up lots of emotion. So, whenver I’m saying “no”, I try to think how the other party thinks about the decision. What does it mean from their perspective?

Remember you hired your team to be the best advocates for their department/group. If they aren’t passionate about your saying no, then are they the best advocates? You need to remember that there is trade off between local (departmental) and global (corporate) optimization, but there should be push back on a no vote. Because, as defined, no is a denial. (Note… Your team won’t always understand your reasons for this denial, but as a leader, try.)

As more help in understanding why “no” is so hard, I had a revelation a few years ago when reading a terrific Fortune article by Jerry Useem on decision making. The piece that I repeat to myself (for two+ years now): (bold added by me)

Start with the Latin decidere. It means, literally, “to cut off.” Decisions force us to foreclose other opportunities–jobs not taken, strategies never attempted, options unpursued. Would that sales gig in Houston have worked out better? You’ll never know.

This little piece helped me understand why people have problems with decisions. I never have had a problem with decisions… in business, in personal life, in shopping even. I make a decision and move on. Though not conscious, I think it is because I don’t look at a decision as cutting off anything, but rather the flip side… I look forward to the road taken, or at least, if the road looks bumpy, I look forward to having a road to take, rather than sitting at the crossroads waiting. Thanks to Mr. Useem, I now understand the struggle with decisions more, and can help coach them to the right answer.

So, as I said when I started this blog, I want to learn from you too. What is your experience with decision making? Are you consistent across business and personal decisions? Do you struggle with any particular types of decisions? Do you think that these definitions and latin roots have an impact on how we look at decisions and “nos”? 

P.S. Jerry Useem also interviewed Jim Collins on decision making and it was a good piece too.

What is on my shirt today? What else?

I (heart)