A reader of the earlier post on the Toyota Way raised a very hot question. Among retail employees Wal-mart has often been dismissed as an awful place to work because people say you have to do everything the Wal-mart way or leave – boring, rote, automatons? It’s similar in many respects to the Toyota Way of managing. When Wal-mart arrived in Canada in 1994 I wasn’t kidding when I started a presentation to a Zellers annual strategy meeting that was held about two weeks later with this chant: "Give me a Z." I waited. Then I called out, "Give me a Z, give me an E, give me an L." When there were more puzzled looks I tried again. They got it. Wal-mart is renowned for starting every day in every store with the Wal-mart cheer – "give me a W, etc." Zellers senior management didn’t respond very enthusiastically though.
My comment was, "We won’t know if this will work with Canadian employees till we see them try it, but if it does… watch out." In fact, we all pretty much believed Canadians were way too reserved and immune to hokey ploys designed to raise false enthusiasm. We thought for sure Canadian staff would revolt. Not so. I don’t know for sure if it’s alive and well today, but for a number of years this was standard here as it was said to be everywhere Wal-mart operates. Does it make a difference? Should employees be "coerced" into it (even if coercion is mostly just peer pressure from everyone else going along)? Does it take away our individuality and personal choice? Would anyone choose to utter this cheer without "encouragement?" And perhaps most "important" of all – is it too hokey for words? Personally I’d rather do that than a so-called "team building" ropes course climbing a mountain. Much less invasive.
From outside this sort of relatively trivial behavior looks mostly annoying. But it symbolizes a consistent effort to get everyone following the same strategies – attention to the customer, a sense this is a good place to work and shop and so forth. But no one gets out of bed wanting to start their work day with a cheer. At least no one I know and certainly not me.
But, as we later observed, Wal-mart bought Woolco Canada and it’s employees, kept almost everyone employed, turned them from a demoralized bunch that we basically put out of business into the most successful retailer in the country. While Zellers and the Bay, the previous top pair, added about $3 billion in sales over ten years, Wal-mart Canada apparently added $10 billion – a billion a year. That’s kept a lot of employees a lot happier than they ever were before and people line up to sign on with them.
There’s huge excitement in success, in being the best. We can argue that in many ways Wal-mart should be better and there are thousands of its employees world-wide doing their best to make that happen. It’s hard to see how that’s boring for most. There are some who like less "sticking to the strategy" and a more freewheeling chance to innovate, but as some scientists now studying the process of innovation point out, the best ideas often grow within the most constrained environments, when ‘necessity truly must become the mother of invention’ in every small detail in order for it to add value within a larger stable framework.
Boring resides mostly in each individual’s perspective. Of course, choose a company culture that seems interesting. But there’s lots to be said for a steady, essentially guaranteed job, improving results and a chance to offer ideas that are really valued and used. In any job it’s often somewhat difficult to get your ideas implemented in the grand scheme. Many people find it no more difficult and often easier in these companies and they find lots of other stuff to be positive about as well.