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Applying Lean Thinking in the Retail Sector

A Process, is a Process, is a Process…regardless of what business environment you’re in!

‘Lean Thinking’, a business excellence philosophy that originated in the manufacturing sector, applies equally well in all other business sectors, though there is very little written about this when it comes to the Retail Industry environment.

There are many differences between manufacturers and retailers, and there are a remarkable number of similarities too. Having worked in both, I can perhaps see how this is true, more so than most.

Even amongst retailers, there are certainly significant differences between the product types and service types that they offer, and the modes of delivery. For example, consider the differences between hair-dressers, supermarkets, clothing stores, hardware stores, news agents, post-offices, restaurants, and car dealerships. Lots of differences…but there are also many commonalities.

Fundamentally, they all have customers, (including ‘internal customers’), sales and marketing, purchasing, finance and accounting, payroll, the need to hire and train employees, quality issues, delivery schedules and systems, etcetera. For all companies, a customer is a customer, wherever they are, at every step of the supply chain; and a process is a process. There’s always room for improvement in any business. The same way that some hospitals and banks are now turning to the manufacturing sector to proactively learn about Lean methods, and learning new tricks that are old hat in the manufacturing environment, so too, there’s an opportunity for the broader retail sector to learn some new tricks.

There will no doubt be the nay-sayers who believe that their retail business is so different that Lean Thinking principles and practices won’t apply…and that’s fine, because this simply lets their competitors…the early adopters, get further ahead. There’s no mandate that says every business must be successful, or even survive.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution applies in business just as it does in biology. The ability to adapt to meet the changing environmental conditions is key to long term survival.

Those that don’t embrace the opportunities that new thinking provides, end up being ‘reactive’ and playing catch-up later. Now is the time for early adopters of Lean Thinking in the retail industry to make the break from the pack.

Most articles that relate Lean Thinking and Retail seem to focus on the logistics aspects, including warehousing and wholesaling, rather than what happens at the retail customer interface. But none the less, ‘Lean Thinking’ principles and practices do apply directly to Retail. Much of the ‘business excellence’ or ‘operational excellence’ literature in the retail sector focuses on ‘Sales and Marketing’ and IT (Information Technology) systems, electronic processing, etcetera. Very little is available when it comes to pure and simple process ‘flow’ and quality of the day to day business, where real people are involved.

This is an area of opportunity for the Retail sector where smart retailers can attract and retain more customers, thereby increasing revenues, while at the same time reducing their costs and improving the customer’s buying experience.

So how does ‘Lean Thinking’ apply to Retail?

A key tenet of ‘Lean Thinking’ is to provide ‘value’ to the customer…where ‘value’ is defined by the customer…those elements of the product or service that the customer believes they legitimately should be paying for…without paying for unneccessary process waste. Further, this value should be provided at the rate that the customer requires it, when the customer requires it, where the customer wants it, in a smooth, uninterrupted flow.

So let’s consider some examples of what we mean by ‘value’.

• Is it just the ‘lowest price’?

Suppose, as a customer, you want to buy a carton of milk, and you are an equal distance from your local supermarket and from your local convenience store, with the only difference being that the milk at the supermarket is cheaper.  Where will you go to make your purchase?

If you’re in a rush, it’s very possible that you’ll choose the convenience store, and pay a premium, because at that moment, time is ‘valuable’ to you (as well as the milk), and there’s a high probability that you may be waiting in a long queue if you go to the supermarket.  So clearly, ‘value’ isn’t always just about the lowest price.

Waiting in a queue is of no value to the customer, and anything that is part of the process that isn’t of value, by definition, is ‘waste’.

Customers usually value their time, and retailers know it. Campaign promises such as ‘if you have to wait more than 5 minutes, then it’s free’ is an indication of this. If we consider the supermarket example, I can recall years ago where, if you wanted to purchase a single item in a supermarket, you could be in a queue behind a long line of people with grocery trolleys stacked to the brim. To reduce this regular occurrence, supermarkets started introducing specific checkout isles labelled ’15 items or less’, then ‘8 items’ or less.  This is an example of focussing on what the customers value, and then going about giving it to them by improving the flow—a key concept in Lean Thinking.  Some stores now have the facility for customers to scan and handle the payment transaction for their products themselves, without the need for a checkout person’ to do it for them.
We don’t know what we don’t know!

Does Lean make sense in Retail?

It makes sense that doctors wash their hands in an antiseptic solution prior to operating, to minimise the risk of infecting the patient.  We know it, and it just makes sense. Though until the middle of the 19th century, it didn’t make sense to anyone! Doctors just went about their business…business as usual…not washing their hands prior to operating. Even after the evidence was in, there was strong push back from Doctors who didn’t like being told they should do things differently…‘a better way’. They wanted to stick to their ‘comfortable’, but archaic practices.  All they were being asked to do was wash their hands…it wasn’t rocket science (especially since there weren’t rocket scientists in those days).  Leading and managing change isn’t easy!

You may be surprised, or even confronted by the suggestion that many of the everyday ‘business as usual’ practices in the retail industry are just as archaic, compared with what they could be if Lean Thinking principles and practices were more widely practiced.

Lean Thinking isn’t some complex esoteric set of principles and practices – it’s a simple approach that makes a lot of sense, and provides the promise of a better way, with better results. In hindsight, after a successful implementation, the ‘answer’ will appear self-evident (as it often does), and we’ll wonder why we didn’t always do it this new, simple way.

I still remember when I was a kid, going into the bank.  Instead of a single queue, there used to be a separate queue for each teller. You’d walk into the bank and make your way to the queue that appeared shortest, only to find that the other queues were flowing quicker…because the person at the front of your queue had a complex transaction rather than a simple deposit or withdrawal. You’d see other customers that came into the bank after you progress forward in another queue and be in and out while you hadn’t yet moved—how unfair! Should you change queues?  Will the person at the front of your queue be gone any instant…or will they be there another 10 minutes?   (Invariably you’d always know that jumping queues would work to your detriment, because Murphy’s Law is pretty robust.)

These days, all the banks that I know of have a single queue, and when you get to the front of it, you simply wait for the next teller to indicate (often via a light or bell) to let you know that they’re ready for you.  In Lean Thinking parlance, this is a ‘pull system’ (sometimes referred to as a kanban system, with the light or bell being the kanban signal) where the bottleneck (i.e., the part of the process that is capacity constrained) is ready for the next piece of work.

In hindsight, this is so simple that it makes me wonder why it wasn’t always done this way. I’m still wondering why the likes of McDonalds doesn’t implement this same, simple and fair approach.
What’s in a name?

‘Lean Thinking’ is an unfortunate term. The ‘lean’ bit originally referred to ‘trimming the fat’ from processes during product manufacture. The name is unfortunate because it often has connotations of being about cutting jobs, or being ‘lean and mean’.

It’s actually about doing things sensibly to free up time, remove various forms of waste, and provide a better experience for the customer (and employees), and to become more competitive as a business. The point is, ‘Lean Thinking’ is about continuous improvement and business excellence. It’s not rocket science (though there are those that would like to have you think it’s more mysterious than it really is.)


There’s also another continuous improvement methodology known as Six Sigma, with it’s own unfortunate name (unless you are a statistician, where the name becomes suddenly meaningful…but let’s not go too far into that discussion). These days, the Six Sigma approach has gravitated toward the Lean approach to the extent that there’s now ‘Lean-Six Sigma’, in an attempt to address the drawbacks of following the pure Six Sigma approach.  Having been involved with Six Sigma for quite some time in one of my previous roles in the Customer Satisfaction and Quality Department of a large international organisation, my view is that Six Sigma is simply an approach, for certain types of problems, beneath the Lean Thinking umbrella. It’s not an either/or approach.  The point is, don’t get too hung up about the name.

Because Lean is about making things simple, it’s not surprising that there’s evidence of some Lean Thinking practices and principles having been implemented within various businesses in the retail environment…even though those who have made the improvements may not know there’s a ‘name’ or ‘label’ for a particular concept they’ve implemented. The issue is that where this has occurred, in most cases, only certain elements have been applied, and a structured approach is generally not evident…so there’s plenty of opportunity left on the table.

McDonalds is one of the retail exceptions, where a structured approach has been taken. The key issue here is that they have a limited range of standardised products, and most retailers don’t understand enough about ‘process’ to learn the lessons that can be learned from McDonalds.


Words of Caution:

Beware the nay-sayers!

There are people who will tell you a thousand reasons why lean won’t work in the Retail Industry.

We all know that the earth is round, and that it orbit’s the sun…though back in Galileo’s day, the general population took a lot of convincing, particularly those in power (i.e. the church) who believed the earth to be the centre of the universe. Galileo had proof to the contrary! That wasn’t enough! The saying ‘there are none so blind as those who refuse to see’ rang true as Galileo was persecuted for his ‘heresy’ and beliefs. What it takes, for the truth to be known, is for some open minded influential souls…to become early adopters and blaze the trail for others.  ‘Seeing is believing’ and the competition will inevitably follow.

Lean is simple, but unfortunately, in the majority of applications (even in the manufacturing industry where it is common), it has been implemented poorly. In fact, the ‘Lean’ label has been used, but the Lean philosophy hasn’t been implemented at all.  My analogy is a doctor washing his or her hands in dirty water, rather than in an antiseptic solution, prior to operating. Poor or misguided application leads to poor results! 

Some banks have made some in-roads in an attempt to apply Lean Thinking principles and practices, though they still have a lot to learn…because their focus is still too much on short-term cost-cutting, and out-sourcing jobs to countries with lower wage rates, rather than improving internal efficiencies and competing on a ‘value-based’ customer focused basis that delivers them a better bottom-line overall…but that’s another story.

True lean is based on respect for people, and growing your people as well as your business. The Lean tools are only 10% of the story. It is by leveraging your employees’ brain-power and willingness to be proactively engaged in continuous improvement, doing the right things, in the right place, at the right time, that delivers sustainable improvement in business results.

For those who seek to use lean as a way of reducing headcount in the short term to reduce costs, expect that employees will see through this and resist it. Consequently, momentum for real continuous improvement will be short lived, and net beneficial results will be compromised.

A Question to test your perspective:

  • Why do you want to introduce Lean?

For the majority of private enterprise, a related question is:

“What do you want to do as a business?

•  Save money?       


•  Make money?” 

The successful implementation of Lean as a business strategy is VERY dependent on leadership’s attitude and buy-in. It’s not a short-term fix. The way in which the leadership team of your business answers the above question will give an indication as to the likely success of a Lean implementation.

Think about it. Just imagine that by engaging all your employees in continuous improvement it led you to a more competitive position where many of your costs went down (relative to revenues), while customer demand and revenues went up—leading to a better bottom line. You may well find that the expansion of the business requires you to employ more people to keep up with the growth…and if not, natural attrition over a period of time will allow gradual reduction in staff numbers, with employees feeling much more secure about their jobs, and much more engaged in building the business.  This is in line with the Lean philosophy.

This is not to say that there’s never an argument for reducing staff numbers in business. If you’re in a market that becomes virtually redundant (wagon-wheels, typewriters) then you either adapt to new market demands, or shrink. But while there’s still market demand, continuous improvement is your best chance of being competitive, capturing market share, and protecting your employees’ jobs to the extent possible.

Lean IS SIMPLE…but it’s not necessarily EASY, and there are lots of traps for new players. Amongst the traps are misinformation and inconsistent definitions about what Lean and Six Sigma are; and the common assumption that Lean is just a set of tools.

Don’t be put off by this because the potential rewards are great (including from an environmental sustainability perspective). Just proceed with caution. My recommendation is to get yourself a trusted advisor who knows what they’re talking about. That’s one of the most critical parts, and perhaps the most difficult, since without some expertise in the area, how do you make the right choice? If you get the wrong advisor, expect that you’ll get plenty of hype and talk about ‘tools’. The Lean tools are necessary, but totally insufficient on their own.

The starting point should not be about the tools, but rather, as a business, what is the key problem you’re trying to solve…what’s driving your need for change?  As a company, where are you now, and where do you want to be?  Let’s not start driving until we know where we want to go.

Be aware that Change Management plays a critical role  in any improvement process, and getting this right is a critical element of your success.

So how do you know where and how to start, and who to talk to?

Elementary, Dear Watson…

Contact me at or on +61 3 9017 6633 if you’d like to have a chat.


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