The Money is in the Methods

By: Dan Bursik
Vice President, Best Practices

As you work with your organization to optimize labor performance (and usually optimize customer service and associate potential at the same time) there are many topics and points of contact to make to create improvements and facilitate change.

Industrial engineers typically understand productivity in terms of three performance dimensions: Utilization (are associates working or not working), Methods (how effectively associates are working), and Performance (the skill, zeal and effort of the associate). Of course, other elements come into play such as workplace organization (5-S) and effective use of technology, but so far as the associate is concerned those three dimensions, Utilization, Methods and Performance, cover a lot of ground in quantifying productivity.

Time and time again as we quantify productivity in retail organizations we find some level of opportunity in all these areas. While all three require attention, I’ve consistently found that most of the opportunity is in the methods.

Why is that?

Utilization is less about the associate than about effective work planning and scheduling and all too many managers replicate one schedule to the next without right-sizing the time or the placement of hours to the reality of the new week. Still more fail to effectively communicate their work plan and expectations to their associates beyond the most basic and obvious elements. The result is associate time is a mismatch with work requirements, or associates fail to transition properly from task to task in the absence of a clear plan and a sense of urgency for who is doing what, focused toward completion. Addressing utilization opportunities usually involves creating clear standards of execution and development of work plans that communicate quantitative and qualitative expectations to associate teams. Upstream processes of accurate forecasting of work drivers and time allocation based on work content using engineered labor standards is key to successful alignment of associate work capacity to daily or time of day work content. With utilization improvements a team does not work harder or faster or produce more, but it avoids wasting time through miscommunication, misallocation or inattentive management.

Performance challenges tend to have a pretty limited scope as the skill, zeal and effort of associates is impacted first, by the associate selection and hiring process, second, by training and development, and third, by the culture of inclusion, rewards and values that the organization creates and sustains. Yes, it can impact people’s desire to work and to do a good job but it may not change how well they do that work or overcome poor utilization planning either.

Methods opportunities are quite different. When you focus on methods you directly impact the time it takes to perform an operation. Utilizing the best method consistently is the most effective game-changer in productivity output. The bottom line is that if you forecast precisely, schedule thoughtfully, communicate clearly, and create the most positive culture possible and you will still never overcome the productive disparity between an ideal associate stocking with one hand and an average trained associate stocking with two hands.

To be sure, best methods are not only about working faster, but have both qualitative and quantitative components. The Produce stocker who fails to rotate product isn’t doing you any favors by taking that short cut; what he saves in seconds of labor is overwhelmed by shrink and customer disappointment. Deli clerks with great speed and no personality or time for suggestive selling won’t create enough labor savings to offset low sales and customer indifference. So best methods aren’t just about speed but doing things as best we know how to on a consistent basis with all the elements of great customer service, food safety and workplace safety baked in.

Why then, in so many organizations, are managers reluctant to teach, coach or even observe the methods their associates employ to do their work?

First, confidence in their being a best method is often lacking. If an organization does not possess and train a best method for an operation then how can a manager be confident in demonstrating or coaching it?

Second, many managers don’t understand the cumulative value of method effectiveness relative to other associate qualities: punctuality, attendance, and the misleading notion that the associate that displays the most sweat or effort is the hardest worker on the team. Have you ever implemented individual productivity cards only to find that the manager’s perception of who was working most effectively was all wrong? I have, numerous times.

Third, coaching methods is personal work in close quarters. It requires caring, patience and a certain tolerance to being perceived as nit-picky. If done improperly, it can make a touchy associate feel like they are being singled out, scrutinized, or micromanaged for no discernable reason. This is especially true when the organization does not have or train best methods to begin with. It is much easier for managers to demand associates to pick up the pace rather than to coach method improvements that will enable a better pace.

Fourth, if the workplace lacks basic organization, then adherence to best methods is made much more difficult. It’s hard to focus on best methods for associates when the workstation or work area may not be consistently conducive to performing the work or when tools are not consistently and efficiently located.

For these and other reasons, method coaching is not an easy skill for managers to embrace unless you help establish conditions for success that they can leverage.

Here is my top 10 list of things that can make a huge difference:

  1. Help create a context for productivity improvements that enable everyone to understand them in the context of your company’s values, goals and strategic priorities. Help everyone be invested in your company’s success and in method improvements as a part of that larger success.
  2. Develop your best methods in a collaborative process and, ideally, help people understand what success looks like either using model stores or testimonials of store peers they can relate to.
  3. Document your best methods in a format that provides clarity and is easy to use for training. Visual Method Sheets with step by step details of how to perform an activity using the best methods are ideal. Video is another great way to supplement Visual Method Sheets for training and reinforcement.
  4. Eliminate conflicting messages that can frustrate or confuse implementation of your best methods. Be sure that all elements of customer service, effective merchandising standards, safe food handling, workplace safety and company policies have been integrated into your best method so that employees do not perceive a choice between competing company objectives.
  5. Organize the workplace using techniques like 5-S to normalize work areas in ways that allow best methods to be used consistently and without associate frustration.
  6. Coach managers on how to observe and coach their associates for methods. Consider this a new skill to be developed; a new play in your management effectiveness playbook. Role playing makes this much easier for managers to get comfortable with the skill and to embrace it as a way they help and motivate the associates they work with.
  7. Make best method training part of the expectation associates are exposed to in the hiring and training process. Let them know this is part of the job’s expectations for them to learn and for their managers to coach.
  8. Measure your success and celebrate it. Get feedback from associates and from managers and learn from it. Survey tools can make capturing this feedback easier than ever and to address the little things that may be creating misperceptions or that can be easily fixed. Nothing else reinforces behavior like positive recognition eared by “local heroes” in your organization that put measurable points on your scoreboard.
  9. Innovate and demonstrate a willingness to bring continuous improvement to your best methods with the help and insights of everyone’s ideas and experience.
  10. Keep working it. Change management is a journey not an event and the more you make method training and method improvement a vital part of your journey the more success you will have.

While successful improvements in productivity require efforts geared toward Utilization, Methods and Performance, I think you too will find that the money is in the Methods.