The Importance of Culture

This past week I had two separate incidents while out shopping. The first was at Menards, a home improvement store. I was buying several different items including 4 concrete pavers. They were plain, 12″x12″ blocks.  They didn’t have a UPC on them anywhere so when I went through the checkout the cashier had to look them up in a book. His supervisor told him they wouldn’t be in there because they were new. So he turned to his register and started looking up 12″ cement blocks and several other terms. I told him that they were $1.47 each.  He murmured something about looking that up.  His supervisor went over to the customer service desk and started looking.  About 5 minutes later, I’m not exaggerating, I’m still standing there. I tell his supervisor they were $1.47 each, she said they couldn’t look it up that way. They eventually found something and charged me the right amount and I was on my way. I came really close to just telling them to forget the blocks, but I needed them for a project I was working on.

The next day I was at Costco. I was checking out and the cashier told me it was time to renew. However, I had been in about 3 weeks earlier and already renewed.  He called his supervisor up. She put in a code that let him ring me up while she went to go investigate.  I was able to complete my order before she found out any information. About 30s later she told me that she didn’t have the ability to see the information and I needed to talk to member services, so I took my cart full of groceries over there. Within about 5 minutes they had found the mistake and fixed it and I was all good to go.

In the first case, the employees weren’t really empowered or equipped to solve the problem.  I felt bad for the cashier and his supervisor as they scrolled through a long list of landscaping brick descriptions looking for one that resembled “12×12 plain”.  But that’s all they could do. They could not do a price override or offer any other remedy to the situation. It was very much brute force: We’ll find the right price and charge you that. To make matters worse, there was a couple behind me in line this entire time. They were trapped.

In the second case, the cashier and his supervisor were allowed to ring up my order and solve the problem of renewal afterwards. This was great for me as I didn’t have to get in multiple lines just to get my groceries. It also worked out for the people behind me in line as they weren’t trapped in a line while some bozo (me) ahead of them argued about his renewal.

The difference in culture was subtle but clear. It highlighted to me how important culture is. Not just in retail either. Lots of companies operate more in line with what I experienced at Menards.  Individual employees aren’t allowed to make critical decisions. They’re forced to use systems that someone else has put in to place (often that person will never use the system either.) They have to just brute force things as well.

However, other companies not only allow, but actually encourage their employees to make decisions, to speak up and try to solve problems.At Aviture, the company I work at, we tell people in interviews “We hire adults and we expect them to act like adults.”  This has several meanings. Some of the obvious ones are to be accountable to your team. Don’t just “flake out” and not show up one day, but communicate with your team. If you need to take a day off, take it, but let people know. But more than that it means that we’re going to treat you like an adult, and not a chid. So if you have an idea, try it out. Be willing to take calculated risks, take chances, don’t be afraid of failure.

That attitude contributes to a lot of our innovation. And it’s true at lots of places, not just Aviture. When employees are treated like they’re smart and care about the company and the customer, they’ll typically perform better than if they’re treated like they have to be constantly monitored and constrained.


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