Emmett Shear, at Twitter (@eshear) suggests that Burnout, which he defines as “a particularly modern affliction, feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and paralyzed” is best thought of as a symptom with many different causes–the most important of which are permanent on-call, broken steering, and mission doubt.  ‘Permanent on-call’ is self-explanatory, ‘broken steering’ is the sense that your actions have no impact, ‘mission doubt’ arises when you question whether this work is really worth doing at all…ie, even if the steering was functioning properly, maybe this trip isn’t worthwhile.

It’s a useful formulation.  I’d note that some jobs have always had a permanent on-call aspect; railway workers, for example…see Linda Niemann’s memoir of her experiences on the old Southern Pacific Railroad–no cell phones or even pagers in those days, but there were ‘callers’ who would come to your residence and wake you up when you were needed.  Also sailors.  But on-call jobs are a lot more common today than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

I think the feeling of ‘broken steering’ has also long been present, in the case of large-bureaucracy employees and some manufacturing workers.  An assembly-line worker knows that his task does contribute to the final product..but the connection probably seems pretty remote and abstract when your actual job is to tighten three bolts.

‘Mission’ can be understood in two ways: the purpose of the job in terms of what it produces, and the purpose of the job in terms of income to support yourself and your family.  As the second factor becomes taken for granted, the first surely becomes more important.  (See Maslow)

Very relevant to this topic is Zeynep Ton’s recent book The Good Jobs Strategy.  She discusses the unpredictably-fluctuating employee schedules which are so common in retail..maybe not pure on-call, but close to it…and the disruptive effect these schedules have on an employee’s personal life.  She also talks about time pressures that lead to jobs inevitably being done poorly.  A former Target cashier, for example, said she was under so much pressure to ring up sales as quickly as possible that if a customer bought 10 bottles of Gatorade–in two flavors–she would scan the first one and then hit the quantity key for ten.  The inventory system thought the store had sold 10 lime-flavored Gatorades and no cherry-flavored Gatorades, rather than the mix that had actually just been sold.  She also cites a study of a $10 billion company which found that the system had the right information for only 35% of the products…for the other 65%, the discrepancies between the system inventory balances and the actual quantities available averaged 5 units…a third of the target stocking levels.  In one case, a certain item was continually out of stock, to the frustration of a regular customer.  It turned out that the inventory system thought there were 42 of these on hand, whereas there were actually none.  AND, since this particular store hadn’t sold any units in several weeks (because they didn’t have any to sell), the system automatically reduced the target stocking level for that item!  Situations like this are surely destructive both of sense of mission and of a functioning steering system.

Your thoughts?

59 thoughts on “Burnout”

  1. Broken steering – when management treats employees like generic cookie cutter parts that are easily replaced. Worked at a place that tried to improve morale by handing out appreciation pins every five years. The manager in charge of that came to where I worked and said “Congratulations, here is your five year pin.” I said that’s strange, as I already had one and showed it to him. He looked at the one in his hand and said “Oh, this is a ten year pin.” I did not feel appreciated.
    Stocking levels being off due to high pressure to ring up sales quickly – reminds me of the old saying about being penny wise and pound foolish. And our genius elites think they can change human behavior by waving their hands.

  2. The inventory story reminds me of my experience at Sears so many years ago. I was working there part time when I was a college student. I was in a sort of management training program. My college scholarship was funded by Sears. Two areas I worked in were inventory control and the warehouse. Inventory control was run by three or four old ladies updating cards. This was long before computers at Sears. The old ladies had been there for years, and had accumulated many weeks of vacation. When one would take her vacation, no one took over her job so the cards did not get updated. Over the years, the inventory in the warehouse had become unrelated to what was in there. This I experienced when I rotated to the warehouse. We had no idea what was in there and we filled orders by randomly choosing items we found.

    About a year later, I started a job programming a computer at Douglas Aircraft. The connection to Sears problems was obvious but nobody at Sears seemed to see it.

  3. A large part of the problem we face is the terrible state of software. I run into many things that would work just fine, if the software had not farmed out to the lowest bidder.

  4. I spent 9 years working at Home Depot and I laughed about the inventory count aspect. The inventory problem can be used as prism to view everything that is wrong with Home Depot.

    As Brian mentioned from Zeynep Ton’s book, correct inventory counts are critical for a retail store to maintain its in-stock position given automatic reordering for merchandise. The critical number we used was that 70% of customers who come into the store know what they want and don’t need to talk to an employee, they will go straight to the shelf and take the merchandise to the register. If the shelf is empty then you hope the customer asks for assistance otherwise you wasted a precious foot-traffic opportunity to make a sale. Even worse is the customer who cannot find a certain item after driving for ½ hour to get there because the HD web site said you had 10 of them. Lost sales, bad customer experience…. goodbye bonus and even worse plummeting morale because every employee feels the place is a sh*tshow

    So what to do? Perhaps it can be viewed in terms of mission.

    HD like many big box retailers hires people as front-line associates who are…um less than cream of the crop. That is a given. However what I have found is that the main problem is that entry-level employees up-to department supervisors have little idea of what they are supposed to do in order to support the store. There is some vague notion of customer service, some idea of keeping shelves full and looking nice but little beyond that. I was in position for an entire year until I realized, via a chance comment from a senior-level manager, that the magic formula was in-stock and shelf maintenance. My last position was running overnight logistics and when I would walk the stores in the morning I found in talking to associates and department supervisors a large amount of frustration stemmed from a lack of control because they were constantly being told the store looked like crap and they were missing plan but the people on the front-line had no idea how to fix it and were constantly reacting… which leads to burn-out

    The solution in this case was so simple it was criminal that nobody had implemented it. The first part was proactive, department supervisors should walk their aisles twice a week and scan items that were out and if the scan showed there should be inventory when there was none, then the count was adjusted so more product could be ordered. The second was reactive but used the fact that your front-line associates were your eyes and would come across those outs either when restocking or from customer complaints; at that point they should make note and alert a manager before the end of shift so it could be adjusted. The key is to be aggressive in pushing this… and few managers would. I actually had contests where I would tell associates for stores I would walk that if they could bring me 10+ items to be adjusted I would buy them something from the snack machine (a major no-no as we weren’t allow to show favoritism but screw that, people should be rewarded not just with a pin but with something immediate and delicious – called leadership)

    And as for the frustration and burn out for department supervisors? I told them not only would a great in-stock position and sales look good but that they should be sure to grab the district manager the next time he was there to show off all the great things that were done to insulate them from the reactive whackadoodles.

    So from a systemic stand point what to do?

    1) At the corporate level, if you are going to key initiatives such as reordering and showing inventory to customers via the Web site then adjusting counts must be a top priority and this communicated to store level
    2) At the district and store level, front-line associates and supervisors are trained from day 1 on maintaining inventory levels int hat they are shown how to do it and know how the process affects the store. Managers are held accountable for executing this play

    3) This is the trickiest because it seems to me retail corporate does not care to understand how teams are built and maintained.; there is an idea that associates can do no wrong and must be constantly motivated and rewarded to do their job – I guess they feel this is the only way to get anything from minimum-level employees. The primary result is a store workforce that is impossible to manage because front-line employees are impossible to discipline let alone terminate…. I checked the books at one store and 1 employee was late 68 times over a 3 month period, another had 22 unexcused absences and the stores were rife with employees that could never be found. The secondary result is a form of Gresham’s Law for employees as the bad associates drove out the good; the bad ones never left, the really good ones left out of frustration , and the ones in the middle let their performance drop because why bother working hard if it had no impact. ( I have seen this in HD stores nationwide, yeah I’m a real joy when I vacation)

    Labor is the second highest cost, after good sold, on the store P&L. If you want drive the programs corporate wants to implement you need to have an effective workforce. You cannot have ab effective workforce if corporate and especially corporate HR put in policies that treat everyone as if they were all super stars waiting to have their talents burst out.

    That is my final point… people burn out when they feel that their actions have no impact on the end result. This isn’t just because they cannot see how tightening those 3 screws has an impact om the end result; it is also because they feel that their actions are lost in a mire of mediocrity and managers are scared of doing anything about it so why bother working? I got into arguments with HR all the time because I pointed to examples in various environments where entry-level people formed effective teams; the trick was not to focus on coddling but instead on how to prune that malignant 5% out.

    So yeah……

    I can get you a high-performing, low wage retail store. I’ll get you a place where both customers want to shop and employees want to work at. I can reduce burn out from managers on down. Just give me the leverage to make sure HR policies, from training to employee retention, are aligned to store outcomes and employee happiness.


  5. I looked around, and realized when I had about sixteen years comitted to the Air Force – that just about all the station managers I worked for had cracked up, either mentally, or emotionally in sometimes spectacular ways. Alcoholism was about the least of it, but massive heart attacks were not out of the question. It was a particular brand of stress for them, in that they were in a position where they had a horrendous degree of responsibility … but no actual control over the situation. They were dependent on the vagaries of an assignment system which sent them people not of their own choosing. They were the boss of a tenant organization, dependent on the good-will of the larger organization, and dependent on the dicta of a command at a considerable remote from where they were. At the mercy of a supply chain in the hands of other organizations, and of a HQ which really didn’t want to hear what they didn’t want to hear.
    So. Crackups galore. That’s when I decided that I really wanted out, with my mental and physical health intact. I didn’t want to be a station manager. I slid sideways into other organizations and emerged, relatively unscathed after 20 years.

  6. Mike — sincere thanks for your long comment, worth every moment. It helps those of us on the customer side to understand the challenges facing the guys working in the stores.

    “the trick was not to focus on coddling but instead on how to prune that malignant 5% out.”

    I have heard similar comments from frustrated “leaders” in all kinds of organizations, from grade schools to volunteer organizations to corporate executives. There are just so many legal and other barriers in the way of doing what needs to be done.

  7. Working for huge companies is miserable, but consumers insist on the savings they get from the scale only those companies can leverage, even at expense of customer service and knowing from your friends and neighbors how miserable the employees are. Not quite sure how society solves that problem…

  8. Brian…it’s not all a matter of size. Sometimes founder-led companies are run in a very top-down way that results in everyone else (including those who have the titles of managers and executives) being treated as just ‘arms and legs’ for implementation, without significant economy. Same is true of some family companies. Often constrains growth significantly, of course.

  9. Operations which is the science of effectively allocating personnel is a lost art overstressing labor or equipment like running factories above standard operating tempo is very dangerous

  10. My dad told me many years ago that everybody is either underpaid or over paid and that it was better to be under paid. It took me a while to see his point and that it comes down to pride and self confidence. There’s still the matter of magnitude.

  11. “everybody is either underpaid or over paid”
    That reminds me of a question I’ve had for a while, does anyone have a recommendation for a book on the history of American work, not on labor/unions, but about how what sort of work people did changed over time, most especially how we went from a nation of independent people to a nation of employees, and whether people were aware of it as it was happening, and what if any resistance was made.
    “The Great A&P” was a good book that included a fair bit about resistance that small grocers and some politicians put up against the first real “supermarket” chain, but were defeated by the fact that consumers just liked the changes relative to what came before. Also interesting notes about how labor unions were on the side of the small operators until the big chain unionized, at which point they switched completely, of course…
    Right now the GOPe loves big business and talks about how they love small business, and the Dems love big business and talks about how they love unions, and we’re all on the runaway train over the cliff. Chesterton of course would not be surprised, he’s the best writer on modern economics that I’ve ever come across…

  12. Brian…I’ve read quite a few books on work of various types in various eras, but don’t think I’ve ever seen the kind of overview you describe. Could be very interesting.

    In the Colonial era, there were a lot of pseudo-employees of various types…indentured servants, apprentices, etc…and, of course, there were actual slaves. Sailors would have ben mostly employees, usually signed up for a single voyage, and I’m under the impression that farms of any size tended to have one or more hired men.

  13. Yeah, it’s not simple by any means, my ancestors (the non-Italians) were mostly small farmers throughout the 19th century and by the early 20th were tenant farmers and/or living in town doing “jobs” of various sorts.
    I think “apprentices” are fundamentally different from employees today, because the system was set up that they were going to be independent within a few years, which isn’t at all true now. I have an ancestor who moved from the Hudson Valley to Central New York as a 10 year old 200+ years ago to be a blacksmith’s apprentice. Ended up marrying both the boss’s daughters (not at the same time, obviously…), then moving to the Western edge of the state, where they farmed for several generations.

  14. In Europe, the guild system was fairly rigidly enforced. The progression was form apprentice to journeyman to master. Apprentices were bound to a master for a set number of years before they were eligible to become journeymen, it wasn’t automatic, usually requiring presentation of some sort of sample to prove competence. A journeyman was free to accept work from any master that would employ him but couldn’t work on his own or take apprentices. The requirements to become a master usually included the agreement of the other masters in a particular town as a minimum.

    Over here, this system was much looser, especially the distinction between who could establish their own shop. The guilds never got a toe hold here and never had the sort of power that they had in Europe.

    Still, the size of project that a single person can complete is limited. Even in pre-Revolutionary America, I expect the majority of workers worked for hire in some way. Then as now, it was common for small farmers to either work part of the time for other farmers or at some other trade. I remember reading that New England shipbuilding had an ebb and flow depending on the season and some of the workers leaving and returning to attend to sowing and harvest, their wives and children being able to manage between..

    The distinction was that there wasn’t any enforcement. It was easy for someone to just move a few towns over and if he had some tools and said he was a blacksmith, no one to say different. Then the Industrial Revolution threw everything into a cocked hat.

  15. Then as now, it was common for small farmers to either work part of the time for other farmers or at some other trade.

    The census forms for my grandfather and great grandfathers always include a few “hired men” and “hired girls.” Both had large families, 12 for my great grandfather and 10 for my grandfather. I think the hired men and girls were gradually replaced as the children grew up. My great Grandfather had 9 sons. As each came of age, he bought a farm for him loaning half. As the loan was repaid, he bought more land. Eventually, most of the county were populated by his family. He retired to town and a beautiful house about 1900. My father remembered helping out at harvest time.

  16. In the Little House books, Pa is a farmer, but not a successful one. He has to go away several times to work to earn money, and did various handyman sort of jobs. I don’t think that he’d have called himself an “employee” of whoever it was who was paying him, though, or thought of himself and that relationship anything like we do today. Then after the time covered in the books, they supported themselves renting rooms in the house they moved to in town. The book doesn’t overly romanticize, and we shouldn’t either, those times. But the path that “we” took over the past century and a half isn’t somehow necessarily the “optimal” one. Certainly it’s not obvious at all that a unionized Amazon and Walmart that the Dems want to see isn’t going be worse, and the GOPe basically has absolutely nothing to offer–“lower taxes” isn’t a plan.

  17. This is an inherent issue with automated ordering/stocking systems. They need corrective interaction — i can see several things that can be relevant, one of which would be a bot that just ran around the store looking for empty, or even mostly empty, shelves. It could either scan the shelf info for what should be there, or at least flag it for a human to check into.

    This would help solve the gross-level inventory issues which are common.

    One or two of the local wal-marts have been particularly prone to this for over a decade — e.g., long before the current production/delivery snafus. I’d go in there and, while walking around, see at least 60-70 FEET of empty shelves in various places (i.e., single shelves, not an entire 5-level shelves as “6 feet”). That’s still a lot of lost revenue.

    The problem is, even the locals can’t go into the system and fix it — not even the store managers, and that is just fucktarded, brain damaged stupid.

  18. }}} Frank: reminds me of the old saying about being penny wise and pound foolish.

    Yeah, there’s a LOT of that these days. Part of it’s the result of the “Sausage Game” so common to corporate retail and food services:

    “…so here’s what the sausage game is: You win yourself
    a market with a nice all-meat sausage, the best sausage you can make.
    People eat that sausage and they say ‘mmm-hmmm!’ So now you’ve
    established the product, right? Now you can afford to start slipping in a
    little sawdust. Add the sawdust by small enough increments and no one’ll
    even notice. People will still say ‘mmm-hmmm!’, because people are
    creatures of habit. Of course, five or six increments down the road, you’ll
    end up with a product that bears little or no resemblance to what you
    started with, but you’ll get away with it, for a while, at least. Your market
    share will hold, your profit margin will increase, and everybody will think
    you’re smart.”
    – Leonard Caust –

    The problem with this is, sooner or later, someone ELSE is going to start making a good sausage, your customer base will evaporate, and once you lose people it’s not easy to get them back.

    But in the meantime, the corporate jackwads who made those stupid, short sighted decisions have moved on to some other company and screwed, well, pretty much everyone except those who had stock in the short term of the company while they were ruining the product but keeping margins high.

  19. }}} Frank: reminds me of the old saying about being penny wise and pound foolish.

    Yeah, there’s a LOT of that these days. Part of it’s the result of the “Sausage Game” so common to corporate retail and food services:


    “…so here’s what the sausage game is: You win yourself
    a market with a nice all-meat sausage, the best sausage
    you can make. People eat that sausage and they say
    ‘mmm-hmmm!’ So now you’ve established the product, right?
    Now you can afford to start slipping in a little sawdust. Add
    the sawdust by small enough increments and no one’ll even
    notice. People will still say ‘mmm-hmmm!’, because people are
    creatures of habit. Of course, five or six increments down the
    road, you’ll end up with a product that bears little or no
    resemblance to what you started with, but you’ll get away
    with it, for a while, at least. Your market share will hold,
    your profit margin will increase, and everybody will think
    you’re smart.”
    – Leonard Caust –

    The problem with this is, sooner or later, someone ELSE is going to start making a good sausage, your customer base will evaporate, and once you lose people it’s not easy to get them back.

    But in the meantime, the corporate jackwads who made those stupid, short sighted decisions have moved on to some other company and screwed, well, pretty much everyone except those who had stock in the short term of the company while they were ruining the product but keeping margins high.

  20. ObloodyHell…

    I think you put it quite succinctly about the need for corrective interaction to deal with automated ordering/stocking systems. The issue I have is not such much the technical systems for interaction, which were quite accessible down to the department supervisor level at HD, but the fact that using the system was not rigorously implemented by senior management.

    You also touched on an aspect of empty shelves, empty in terms of single shelves in an aisle. I have noticed these at Wal Mart and your point brings up this concept which drove me nuts at HD…. exploiting foot traffic which is a result of reputation management

    HD does offer a form performative bonuses to even the lowest level of associates and I was often asked by the smarter newbies why should their bonus check be so dependent on something they had no control of – being foot traffic. When I was asked this I immediately flagged these questioners as candidates for promotion because they got what so many in upper management never understand or did not emphasize.

    Foot traffic is critical because you cannot sell to people who don’t enter your stores. Yeah you can say they buy online but for a lot of DIY projects are you really going to online products like paint or lawn chemicals? Are you going to order online that wiring or bolts you need right now?

    Back in the day before I joined HD and had just bought my first house, when you had to get something for your project, you immediately thought of HD for 2 reasons; that there were associates who were knowledgeable and that you knew that the product you needed was on the shelf. In other words you knew if you went to HD you could get your project done, That reputation, that branding, is difficult to achieve but priceless for not only driving the foot traffic for the initial sale but also for add-ons. Think all those neat plants and flowers in the nursery that are visible from the parking lot, those cute patio furniture cushions located just inside the entrance.

    With supermarkets this is the milk effect. Milk is sold below cost to get you into the store in the first place. Also you will notice the milk is placed along the back of the store so that you are forced to walk past other enticing, and if management knows what they are doing, higher-margin merchandise.

    At HD I don’t think I either saw a customer carrying the weekly ad or had a customer refer me to a product in the ad, we drove foot traffic through reputation management – a concept I never heard senior management either at the regional level or Atlanta ever use.

    10 -15 years ago, HD made a decision to degrade 1 part of that reputation – the knowledgeable associate. I, along with many other customers, would go to HD because the associates were knowledgeable about not only where the product was but because they could tell how to use it. I joined HD at the start of this degradation and I would remember the value that the old, retired guy in Plumbing had because he could tell customer not only had to do a project but also what had to be done to code and when to call in a professional. Not only that but the pay was quite good, I had a few people who started in that era and are currently making $50K to stock shelves. HD allowed those people to leave and not be replaced because labor costs are, as in most retail, the second highest cost on the P&L (after goods sold). HD had already squeezed all the juice it could from COGS, labor was the next on the chopping block.

    The resulting minimum wage+ model led to a store management style of which less was demanded of the workforce (not only in terms of performance but also of attendance!) I have noticed over the past few months in several (non HD) meetings that goes something like “…when I’m feeling stressed and I want to go someplace and be left alone, I go to Home Depot.” Needless to say the old reputation is gone and replaced by a new, worse one.

    The other half of HD’s reputation, that of product accessibility, has also suffered but not nearly to the same extent. Yes over the last 5 years customers have had a deteriorating experience in finding what they need, due in part to the fore-mentioned inventory control problem, and also due to lack of focus in stocking shelves. Part of the damage to reputation has been alleviated recently due to stories with supply chain shortages that are in the media, but the problem remains – customers are no longer assured of getting what they need when they come in.

    Combine the 2, assistance and product availability, and you get the “anti-milk” effect; the store is offering features that repel as opposed to attracting customers. If you are not actively moving your reputation forward up the hill, then you are allowing it slide down

    Furthermore back to ObloodyHell’s point about empty shelves, this phenomena not only means missed sales but has the same effect on the psyche as a street full of abandoned building – one of despair and decay, of hopelessness. Shopping a well-stocked store (even Wal Mart) conveys a sense of excitement as the bountiful shelves convey not only a sense of possibility, but also in 21st Century a sense of normalcy. Who wants to drive some place and shop a store that makes them feel bad? That feels like a store in the old USSR?

    So what’s a lesson from all of this, what could HD or any retail chain do to protect and extend ts reputation ?

    First the company needs to acknowledge that reputation/branding is a collective good. Yes one individual store in a chain might be better at the customer experience/foot traffic reputation than a sister store nearby; in east valley of Phoenix I had 4 Home Dept within a 15-20 minutes drive. If I had a bad experience at one HD, I could easily drive an extra minutes going the other direction to the next one if I felt assured of getting the experience I need.

    Second there needs to be explicit acknowledgment within the top levels of the company of the need for reputation management, not the more mealy mouthed customer service measured through register surveys. The derivative strategy of this is that geographic leaders, district managers and regional vice presidents, need to be walking stores and driving home the concept of reputation and linking metrics like those customer surveys and shelf availability to that. Why geographic? Because that’s how customers shop, not necessarily at their closest store but at any store they pass during the course of the day as long they can bring it home at the end of the day. This doesn’t work for ice cream or milk, but if you happen to be driving past a HD on your way back from across town and you know you need a new drill?

    Never once did I hear one of those leaders ever talk about reputation let alone how to manage it or how we were all collectively responsible for it. The problem is that reputation tends to be inelastic. Barring a PR catastrophe such as a product sickening or killing customers, most things that have a negative impact on reputation take time to show up in the public space…. until one day your customer service becomes punch like for introverts

    Back to the original point of this post, burnout. Big box retail spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to cater to a minimum+ wage workforce; however, they spend little time addressing how the environment in terms of the store itself affects employee morale. People who go to work at a store that is a happy place, that customers like being at, boost morale; stores where customers look at you with low expectations and even condescension are employee killers.

  21. During WWII my mom ran the paint department at the local Montgomery Wards. When first given the position, she would ask all people coming in for paint what they wanted to buy, and why they preferred that over the others. She rapidly became good enough at the job that the regional office would say good things about Mr. LastName (she signed everything with her first initial and last name). Don’t think the regional office ever caught on that she was not a he :)

  22. The problem is, even the locals can’t go into the system and fix it — not even the store managers, and that is just fucktarded, brain damaged stupid.

    I find this hilarious. When I worked at a store decades ago, not only did the company employ a specific person with the duty to make sure this didn’t happen but lower-level employees- such as myself- were expected to pay attention to empty spots and get them filled. We were given expensive scanners to use which told the computerized inventory system when an item was low or empty so more could be ordered.

    In other words, the lowest-ranking employees back then had more power to solve problems than a store manager does today.

  23. About HD, what Mike said, squared. I’ve gone from going to HD 3-5 times a week to maybe twice a year. About the only thing I’ll buy is something to address some emergency or something like a sheet of plywood or spray paint that is hard to order on line or prohibitive to ship.

    To be honest, my highest attendance was when I was doing a major building renovation, but by the time I was done, I was so over it, you’d need to goad me at the point of a respectably sized gun to get me there if there was any alternative. The same goes for Lowe’s and Wal Mart.

    One big reason is that I expect that every time I go, I costs my employer at least $100 for my time versus the $10 it costs to get exactly what I want the next day from McMaster-Carr. Then there are all the times I come away empty handed.

    At this point, even if they fixed all the things I hate, I won’t be back.

  24. I haven’t decided whether I will publish my HD thoughts as a business treatise or part of memoir. I have been advised that with a twist or 2 that it would make either a great detective thriller or a Broadway musical.

    However one thought I had during my last few years there was a conversation I remember overhearing during a family gathering back in the’80s. I had several family members, aunts and uncles, who worked for IBM which at the time was one of the 800 lb gorillas of the corporate world. In fact it was the target of a federal anti-trust suit. However even then I specifically remember one uncle, a VP, telling my father to stay from IBM as an investment “any company 2 generations away from its founders is headed toward a reckoning.”

    Take the 2 generations as you will, maybe its 1 or maybe its 3 but generational change isn’t always a positive especially if the newer generations take your lead dog status for granted and forget what it took to get it there. I did have a co-conspirator in the company and as we walked out of a quarterly review session he said something to the effect that the road to hell is marked by signs declaring how great we are.

    On a related note, perhaps one of those signs will have an HR theme…..

    Last year I was in Prague and ended up down spending a beautiful Friday afternoon at a cafe by the Charles Bridge looking at even more beautiful women while drinking equally fine slivotz. I was joined by some other Americans and after a while I could hear one of them counting to 15 and then starting again from 1; he did this repeatedly. I asked one of the other members of his party what he was doing and was told that apparently during the Cold War days 1 in 15 of all Czechs were involved in some capacity with the secret police (the East German Stasi was 1 in 8.) So his buddy figures by counting every 15 people who are 50+ he would observe 1 former member of the secret police.

    Of course after a little while, his friend was up to a reasonable number of suspected former secret police thugs and informants. I asked what happened to all of these people after the Cold War? Did they all stay in Czech Republic or Slovakia to live in fear of their neighbors? No, I was told, they all moved to the US and are currently working for corporate HR.

    Make it of what you will

    As a last note, at the supermarket I ran into an HD HR manager I used to work with. I couldn’t help it and made a pass at her. When I recounted this story later to a horrified former colleague I said I did it in part because she was cute ( I so had a crush on her even when she was threatening my job), I said probably also in part because deep down I wanted to screw her over (in the nicest, mutually beneficial physical way possible) for all the times her and the other HR people were screwing up the company. She didn’t accept though since she has my number on speed dial from all the trouble I caused so you never know what will happen.

    In such circumstances regarding former co-workers it’s better for the soul to engage in poetic lust than in malignant hate.

  25. }}} Labor is the second highest cost, after good sold, on the store P&L.

    Yeah, this one can be fun, too. Not sure about retail, but food service, particularly fast food —

    I had some friends who were in restaurant management software, and they formed their own company and wrote some software to help with staffing a FF restaurant, e.g., a Burger King, Wendy’s, or McDonald’s.

    The software would literally save most locations usually about $50k a year (in 1990s dollars) by improving their staffing efficiency (one point my friend made was that you don’t staff your best employees during the Noon and Dinner rushes, you want them working the slow times. The rushes can only be dealt with by throwing bodies at them, the “best” workers can do little more than any typical worker. You want to staff your best workers at the slow times, because two good workers can probably do the job of 3 typical workers).

    They had a very hard time selling the product, because all the management types were so damned sure of their staffing being “the best possible” that they refused to believe the software would save them money.

    So they realigned and re-wrote the software for higher-end shift work, and many of their sales went to police departments and hospitals. Since their software was exceptionally well written, they pretty much took over the market for over a decade, at the least.

    Lost touch with them so no idea how they are doing now…

  26. }}} Foot traffic is critical because you cannot sell to people who don’t enter your stores. Yeah you can say they buy online but for a lot of DIY projects are you really going to online products like paint or lawn chemicals? Are you going to order online that wiring or bolts you need right now?

    Mike, I think the much more critical thing, there, is, if I have to order it online, then price and speed of delivery are almost the only consideration. Why should I buy it from HD if Amazon has it cheaper and the exact same brand/product, and they can get it to me just as fast, if not faster?

    When I go to HD or Lowes (no Menards around here), I’m going in for some specific thing (usually heavy/bulky so S&H for home delivery is prohibitive… e.g., cinder blocks, less than 10 total CMUs). I will usually walk around the store to see if anything piques my interest, either as a useful thing or a good price, e.g., “clearance”. So they have a chance to sell me more, but they have to stock it and do so in a manner that tells me how much it costs.

    That gets to one other thing, the fact that few setups do a good job of telling you what items actually cost. “No, I’m not loading your stupid APP on my phone so you can spam me with business offers or sell my number to some assholes who will do so.” The arrangement of pricing should make it relatively clear what item is being referred to AND what the price is. This is all the more so true since pretty much no one actually puts a price tag on stuff any more (understandable, not a complaint, but it does create a secondary issue)

    Frankly, one way or another, the packager should put some fairly visible id-code on the product packaging — “18MX” or the like, in letters 2″ tall and a 2″x3″ box for larger products, so that it is improbable that anything nearby will have the same code, and then the retailer could also put that number prominently on the shelf tag. Yes, you can do this with UPC tags, but they are usually difficult to read (being as there are 97 other things besides the actual UPC), done in tiny text, and so forth.

  27. }}} Shopping a well-stocked store (even Wal Mart) conveys a sense of excitement as the bountiful shelves convey not only a sense of possibility, but also in 21st Century a sense of normalcy.

    Indeed, One thing that *I* often think about when entering any large box store — HD, Lowes, WalMart, Sam’s Club — is that it is what Capitalism Hath Wrought. All these things available to ANYONE, and all they have to do is work to earn the money for it, and it is pretty much ALL available if you really WANT it — you only get paid minwage, and can only pay your current bills? You want that $3000 8k ultra HD TV? 3000/10=300 — so you’re going to have to find a part-time job that works you 10-20h a week for 15-30 weeks.

    BUT IT **is** THERE. You can GET it, if you actually want it.

    Now contrast that with Soviet citizens standing in line to buy industrial-grade toilet paper and scraggly carrots…

    And this is why I say, “Thank God for Capitalism.”

    Yes, it has its downsides, but I would rather have all the basics and all that “unfair inequality” they caterwaul in favor of, any day.

  28. Amazon has a good and useful set of tools for almost anything you might need. The terrible state of the various POS and inventory systems, can be dealt with by renting much better software from Amazon.

    Probably not a popular option in many places though. ;)

  29. BTW, one final complaint, and it ties to what you are talking about, Mike.

    I want to make some pipe clamps. Lowes sells the clamps. They sell the pipes.

    The have a pipe threading machine (needed for one end of the pipe to hold one of the pipe clamps.

    You know what most of the stores don’t have?


    Yes. The have the machine, but no one in the store is trained to run it — not even a manager, whom they might expect would be a longer-term employee than the Floor-Discount Brand Employee™

    You might be able to find out who CAN do it — they may have one employee trained — and then call beforehand to see if they are on-shift, and THEN hope that when you get there they won’t be off on lunch. :-/

    I mean this kind of thing is what really really REALLY destroys their reputation. When I go to a store and find that something that they CAN do for me that Amazon CAN’T, yet they specifically can’t do it because someone, somewhere, in management (at the store level or regional level, no idea) is too stupid to know they have to have staff around who can at least run ALL their machines almost all the time. I mean, you have two guys, and one goes on vacation for three days, and the other guy called in sick this morning, that’s one thing. When they “might have someone trained but they’re not sure or not, and they aren’t here today…”?

    Yeah, I am going to avoid that store at best.

    Yes, there are three Lowes in my general vicinity. One of them I will literally NEVER go into ever again**, because 95% of the time it’s a total waste of my time — even the time to stop and see if they have it when i am driving RIGHT PAST IT — whatever I need, they won’t have it.

    And that is pretty much what you are talking about, I think.

    ** OK, around 5-10 years, at least.

  30. }}} The same goes for Lowe’s and Wal Mart.

    Yeah, yet another thing, thanks to Covid, most of the Walmarts are no longer 24/7. Which means there is no way to avoid the crowds, they are still crowded at 11pm, as they close.

    Used to be, you could go into the place and buy something at 2am and not have any issues with waiting for long. Not any more.

    And my time is worth more than that. I usually just buy from Amazon what I was going to get from there… and WM loses out, because I often used the same stop to go grocery stopping, as well. NOW I just use the local supermarket chain, which is a great chain that i never have any issues with.

  31. OBH: “they may have one employee trained”

    That gets to an issue with much broader impact beyond Home Depot & Lowes.

    Some years back, when a Home Depot opened up in my area, they hired retired plumbers & electricians. They also attracted away long-time area ACE Hardware store employees by offering higher wages. Result was that HD was a great place to go to — staff who could give useful advice. Sometimes I ended up buying more expensive things than I had intended because of that good advice, and was completely satisfied.

    But there are only so many retired plumbers & electricians who want to work in retail. Similarly, small start-up professional businesses are able to grow by acquiring pre-trained staff from competitors. But eventually, that well runs dry. What to do? Training staff is expensive. We know what the executives do is go down market, replacing competent trained staff with untrained low-wage people.

    The big issue is that what really should count for a business is value added per employee. But that is so difficult to predict, or even to measure, although most of us have experienced at one time or another the unusually positive contribution that can come from the right employee or a great contractor. But how can we measure value added? The easy thing to do is to measure cost, which ends up with the HD issue of replacing value-adding employees with cheaper staff who add much less value, hurting the business.

    Until we find a way to predict value added, we will be stuck with chasing lower cost/low-bid — no matter how unsatisfactory the results.

  32. Went to Lowes (before the lumber price escalation) to see about getting some lumber, and having it cut. Cutting was not an option, as the person who was cutting wood that day had earlier managed to cut through the power cord while cutting lumber.
    Since then I did some searching and have been going to a family run lumber yard, where they know what they’re doing.

  33. “Used to be, you could go into the place and buy something at 2am and not have any issues with waiting for long.”
    About ten years ago when I was doing a night shift from midnight to 8:00, I had the same idea and went to do my shopping at 3:00AM on a Sunday morning. First problem was only one checker (this was when they still had checkers). Second problem was the person in a Wal Mart smock just ahead of me apparently coming off shift with a stack of coupons and ads about two inches thick wanting to do price match on a big cart of stuff.

    A good way to encourage someone to come to a store as seldom as possible is to waste as much of his time as possible just paying for what he could find.

  34. @MCS – had a similar event, and the buyer was very heated about the coupons not really being expired. I think her idea was to make it so unpleasant that the checker would just give in. Definitely unpleasant for the guy standing behind her in the one and only open lane.

  35. Some years back, when a Home Depot opened up in my area, they hired retired plumbers & electricians. They also attracted away long-time area ACE Hardware store employees by offering higher wages. Result was that HD was a great place to go to — staff who could give useful advice.

    Yes, I hired a Home Depot guy to rewire my garage when I bought a table saw. Needed 240v and he did some other rewiring, too. Those were the days. Pet Peeve- self checkout stations, which appeared about 10 years ago.

  36. ObloodyHell,

    I laughed about your comment regarding the pipe threading machine because this seems to be a problem with HD nation-wide. When I travel whether for business or pleasure I would often stop in the local HD, to the amusement of my family and the woman who would one day be my ex-wife, to observe and I would notice the lack of trained people to provide customer service. This is one aspect of the reputation management problem – from the fore-mentioned inventory control problems (“the Web site you had 53 Minnie Mouse electric light plate covers and you are telling me you cannot find them?”) to nobody to run the saw or pipe threader (“there are five employees on their phones by the service desk, none of them can cut my lumber?”)

    The “pipe threader phenomena” is an example of leadership failure from corporate all the way to down to the stores and the biggest element of it is the lack of emphasis on problem solving. Management is paid to solve problems; store management is compensated well-enough to be incentivized to do so (your Assistant Store Manager will make from $80,000 to $120,000 depending on bonuses) I cannot think of a single class or training program that we took in the stores that discussed problem solving strategies even though that’s job #1 as manager – cue subversive moles working in HR

    Break the problem down with your known knowns. 1) You have approximately 12 employee tasks that need some degree of training from the simplest such as threading pipe or using the lumber saw to moderate like ordering carpet to most advanced such as designing doors and kitchens. 2) Your workforce is minimum wage+ which means you can expect frequent turnover among those employees who are trained in the 12 skills. Also you will have both high absent ism in that population, including those who just disappear 3) Creating adequate schedule coverage around the few existing criteria is problmeatic as is. Yet all I heard in the store from salaried managers was wails of anguish and nashing of teeth as they felt powerless to solve the problem

    Cry me a river fat boy, you are getting paid good money and you “own the business” so how are you going to solve the problem(s)?

    At a store in another part of the country I was looking for something that was not on the shelf but I guessed from the quantity count that it was probably in the overhead and sure enough it was on pallet. I was told they couldn’t get it down because they had nobody could drive a forklift. I identified myself to the manager on duty as a salaried manager who not only had a forklift license but was even a trainer to boot and that I was getting the pallet down. I told the manager that since I was in town for the whole week that I would be happy to come in for few nights and train his people. Having trained equipment operators on call during stores is critical and this clown failed to have this accomplished

    You can tell I don’t work at HD any more

    How do you solve the problem given the 3 known knowns? You flood the zone with training, make sure everyone in the department is trained and wiling to use their equipment and have other people cross-trained. Go out and actively recruit equipment trainers and drivers. When interviewing candidates set the expectation early on that they will be expected to perform a variety of tasks throughout the store. As the pipethreading phenomena seems to be a nationwide problem corporate should jump in and not only create a database of which employee knows which skill but develop an app for the various store smart phones that cross-references those skills with the store schedule so that any employee, let alone a manager, can see who in the store at that moment can do a particular task/

    I used to tell me kids the “five dollar rule” When they told me they couldn’t do something I would ask them if they could do it if I gave them $5. The older boy never caught on it was a trap and said yes… I told him then his inability to accomplish the task was due to lack of incentive, not ability. If store management does not feel the urgency to create a cross-trained staff to provide such coverage, SOP should dictate that when no trained employee is present to help a customer then a manager needs to step in and accomplish it – that should put a spur to things.

    Oh yeah and all of this should be audited by district managers and RVP. Distruict managers tend to visit each store every 1 or 2 weeks, maybe spend a little less time checking for the spit shine on the carpet cutting machine and 15 minutes on making sure we have adequate task coverage?

    However all of this falls on corporate for not creating the expectation for pre-emptory problem solving and developing training to drive that problem home. How about cutting down (not eliminating it) some of the rah-rah crap in onboarding and add 3 new sections:

    1) Problem solving: Train people on not only the methodology in solving problems but in coping with the emotional aspects involved perhaps in part with a dash of compressed version of Six Sigma so problem are averted at the source
    2) Negotiation: The solution to almost all people problems can be enhanced through emotional negotiation techniques combined with training on how to interpret physical behaviors – see the work of Chris Voss
    3) How to Do Hard Things– Just finishing Steve Magness’ new book, “Do Hard Things” and nails a number of concepts that have been rumbling around in my subconscious for a while. How do you prepare yourself to take leadership roles, handle difficult situations? How do you get your team to work and accomplish goals without relying strictly on external authority or disciplinary processes (hint while it’s not the style of Gunnery Sargent Hartman it’s not the grouppy hugginess of HR either)

    It’s all about solving problems. I always the guys on my teams that the biggest skill they could learn from their time with me that would allow them to get ahead in life and their career was how to solve problems

  37. “It’s all about solving problems.”
    Leaving aside the question whether problem solving is even taught in the schools these guys and gals have credentials from in favor of choosing one of four answers from a list. How does he know he has a problem?

    I know for a certainty that he has a report every day or at best every week laying out just how many hours were paid against how many dollars. Especially, he has to justify every minute of overtime paid to anybody. He doesn’t have a report that tells him that $500 or $5,000 dollars walked out of the store because there wasn’t a fork lift operator available to load a unit of plywood or no one to run the pipe machine or they were simply disgusted trying to find what they wanted in the electrical section that has become a disordered heap of miscellaneous parts because no one that knows an LB from an LR works at the store.

    He could spend a couple of hours in front of the store counting every person that leaves with their hands empty and imagine they have a $100 dollar bill that could be sitting in the till if they could have gotten what they needed. But I’m sure he has more reports and spread sheets to fill out.

  38. Paperwork is much more cut-and-dried and predictable, unlike that messy reality.
    But….the map is not the territory.

  39. Mike…what does the measurement/bonus program look like for a Home Depot store manager? Is there anything resembling a store P&L, even at the level of Total Gross Margin?

    And what actual things fall under the store manager’s authority?

    If you haven’t read the Zeynep Ton book I mentioned in the post, it discusses HD pretty extensively. The author seems to be something different from the standard academic/consultant..for one thing, she worked in her father’s textile factory in Turkey…much more operations & detail-oriented than the typical consultant.

  40. I saw at Borders’ in South Florida, back when Borders was still a thing, with the front door propped open and the AC running full blast. Bet that if the electricity bill had been directly charged against the store managers’ measurement, that wouldn’t have happened.

  41. “Bet that if the electricity bill had been directly charged against the store managers’ measurement, that wouldn’t have happened.”
    What if the blast of cold air draws in enough customers, consciously or unconsciously, to pay for the electricity use?

  42. “What if the blast of cold air draws in enough customers, consciously or unconsciously, to pay for the electricity use?”

    Maybe if the store was fronting on a street, but this one wasn’t. You had to drive there & park in the parking lot.

    Point is, the store manager is better-placed to make such decisions than anyone in corporate HQ.

  43. “the store manager is better-placed to make such decisions than anyone in corporate HQ.”
    I agree 100%, but to push back a bit, then what if that manager hears people walk in and say “oh my gosh that AC is so nice” and then they hang around a while and buy stuff? How do you capture that?

  44. Judgment call. Can’t quantify all inputs to a decision. But to the extent that the Output from the judgment-based decisions can be quantified (revenue, profit), then either the feedback to the decision-maker will improve his performance over time…or demonstrate that he needs to be replaced.

  45. David/MCS,

    Regarding store managers and maps…

    HD store manager compensation will vary depending on location and store performance but even in a bad year in my neck of the woods a SM should pull in $100 K. Remember an Assistant Store Manager in the same store would be seeing $75K while overseeing a workforce pretty much composed of minimum wage+. The difference between a new minimum wage cashier hire and your top hourly employee (department supervisor) would be a multiple 1.3. Then again your SM is running an operation that a minimum is grossing $50 million per year/

    So much does a SM control? What sort of an impact can those salaried managers have? No we get to metrics and maps, do the stats on how I evaluate performance of a manager really reflect a store’s performance?

    First a reality in any big box retail operation is that much of the intelligence, the value proposition for the store is located high up the organizational chart, in this case Atlanta. The store or even district manager basically have no control over product selection and pricing; those decisions are made by merchants and at best (in relation to the store) regional level but more likely in Atlanta

    As an aside, back when I was starting out I was running the doors and windows department and one of the items in my product line was solid core, pre-hung interior doors. The solid cores had several problems from a merchandising standpoint. First as they were heavy and pre-hung, they were damaged nearly every time they were moved so that between normal operations and returns I was stuck with damaged inventory. Also they took up about a good amount of room on the sales floor, about ½ as much self space as my much better selling hollow core, pre-hung interiiors which due to its sales volume was always a chore to keep in stock. Third, the solid cores rarely if ever sold and while I didn’t have access to register tapes to conclusively prove it, I knew from my observations that solid cores weren’t driving sales elsewhere to the store. I also knew from my investigations that my colleagues in other stores had the same problems. I pitched getting rid of solid cores, I pitched it all the way up to the regional merchandising manager (90+ stores) and got a incredulous look as to why I wasn’t staying in my lane… my life as a known HD troublemaker had begun.

    So given that I don’t control my product selection or really my inventory level, what do I control as a store manager? When it comes down to it I respond to is the what my bonus rests on – there are 7 metrics but really boil down to a amputated form form of a P&L 1) Sales performance in terms of total sales vs. sales plan and then comparison to previous year’s sales ranked ordered by the other stores in district 2) store controlled operating costs – though some items I have little to no control over such as cooling/heating other parts are key such as labor. My labor metric is not measured in total dollars but instead total hours, which is given a target based on my sales plan. I am expected to hit that hours target, not even go below it because that is used as a proxy for customer service, Also I am judged by my annual inventory audits – how well actual vs. assumed inventory 3) Customer and employee satisfaction as measured by an annual employee survey while the former are self-initiated by the customer based on that code you see at the bottom of register tapes.

    So as far as store performance is the map the territory? And what do we mean by territory? As far as a store’s profitability sure…. the metrics do reflect the dividing line from where corporate’s influence ends and the store’s influence begins. However does it reflect a manager’s influence on the store’s profitability or does it reflect a combination of the SM’s ability execute the great and out-of-touch plans from corporate, metrics which are picked so the hammer has a nail? Sales and comp? Well sure but I’m at the mercy of foot traffic which means the collective nature of reputation management. The items that I do have some direct influence the sales line (product availability, store appearance) or customer satisfaction is related to how well I manage my employee pool keeping in mind the reasonable metric of hitting my hours target every week. However how well can I manage the performance of that critical area when I get hamstrung by corporate HR? Two years ago all new hires were brought on in permanent status as opposed to temporary which meant I would be stuck with unproven employees who were hard-to-fire. This year I have been told that hiring itself has been taken out of the stores and run remotely by corporate which means not only does the person making the hiring decision have little stake in the performance of said new hire but since it is done remotely the person hired is not necessarily the one interviewed.. Cue the old Bill Parcells quote “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

    From my perspective, the two critical metrics are ones that are kept but never presented during management calls – number of transactions and average ticket per transaction. They are the primary driver of sales and number of transactions is a better measure of customer service/satisfaction than a survey that a customer needs to jump various hoops to participate in. Also such a metric is dependent on actually making a transaction in the first place to get that receipt, how can measure those who don’t come into the store anymore or as MCS states those who come in but leave without buying anything.

    So why they aren’t being used? Another aside…. what’s going on in HD right now is a general freak out about Lowes. Rather than acting as the self-confident, 800 pound gorilla #1 that they are, instead they are freaked out by the #2 (Lowes) and are reacting to the latter like their hair is on fire. Not a confidence boosting move for the lower ranks; you never heard it mentioned by name, but we all knew who it who shouldn’t be mentioned.

    Another aside. The problems in responding to Lowes is related to the same problem as developing poor metrics for managers and that is an insular culture. Organizations, like polities, tend to follow an Aristotelian/Cyclical model of growth, stagnation, and decay. HD has been the bad boy on the block for over 30 years, not only have people spent their whole working lives at HD knowing nothing but being the bad boy, but senior management is celebrated from having worked nowhere else but HD – the Executive VP for stores started on the store floor. What sort of fresh ideas can such a culture produce? Not only fresh ideas but you have a form of apathy bordering on corruption. A few districts over where I worked is a district manager who started off a part-time cashier has worked his way up the ranks and is now inline for a regional VP slot. Pretty good huh? Well from my interactions with the man, he has little in the way of managerial or leadership talents but he knows what to say and how to present himself. Ambitious mediocrities who know how to work the bureaucratic system is no way to have a leadership team able to push innovation and weather a crisis, but that is what the current HD system promotes and therefore the man is the poster child for what ails (also he is well known for throughout his management career of having sexual relations with his subordinates, in other words a giant sexual harassment suit waiting to happen)

    There is a lot of ruin in nation and also a lot of ruin, and excuses for doing nothing, in a company that is sitting on a $50 billion cash pile. Excuses will be made because the company is still making a profit, but everyone smells the decay

    So what can a SM do? What should a SM be doing to earn his $100K keep given the restrictions and expectations placed on him by corporate? In short, break out of being a bureaucrat and be a businessman. Stop making excuses and observe the $5 rule (or the 100K rule) and make things happen with what you are given. Some ideas

    1) Drive foot traffic by creating the sense of excitement that HD had been known for until the last 10 years. People used to be excited to come to the store, not so much. If remember correctly 50% of your sales come from the weekend s and 1/3 of your sales come from April and May. You need to find ways of getting customers if not coming into the store than into your parking lot and out of their cars. I Make your parking lot a destination by having some good food trucks; I don’t know what the liability issues would be but leverage the fact that many kids become whiny brats when hauled around on weekend shopping trips by having a bouncy castle or an ice cream stand so that the only way parents can shut them up is to take them to HD. When they get in line at the food or ice cream truck, bait their buying lust with some tables of flowers or grills located closer to the store

    Several years ago during a Black Friday there was a corporate play to build excitement on the store floor by having several teams of employees take one of the special buy items and try to be the first one to sell out of it (you got a free lunch if you did) We had the super strong totes and won by using the carnival barker/infomercial strategy ( (WWTMD? What Would Troy McClure Do?) I recruited the biggest, heaviest employee in the store to stand on it and then take an axe handle and try beating it while having the cutest employee in the store do the play-by-play and pitch- the shoppers loved it because while they saw it was schtick but eager shtick. The problem was that those “project demos” were never replicated again

    Strategy #1 to drive foot traffic? Make HD fun to come to

    2) MCS had a great idea as far as customer service. I knew store managers who, identified by their store manager aprons, would walk the aisles asking customers if they needed help. Why not put them outside the store exits on the weekends to talk to customers about their shopping experiences or more importantly the people who had bought nothing and therefore weren’t customers at all. Don’t sit behind a table with a sign, get out like your campaigning for office and shake hands and ask questions, Have a bowl of candy or bags of chips to compensate people for their time. Just as important, make sure to involve an employee and a department supervisor as well so they understand what you expect as far as personal leadership (they can hold the candy and chips)

    Not only will you get more and better feedback than any bureaucratically hacked receipt-based customer survey, but I’ll guarantee you will have a positive impact not only because you might get information you need and rescue some future lost sales, but customers are going to see the frickin’ store manager out there in the noonday sun and that let’s them that there are people who care

    Oh and what about what the SM learns? At Monday’s staff meeting he brings those results, l ooks at his staff, throws $5 on the table, and says you are paid to solve problems.

    3) Arguments I get against 1 and 2 is that they are too expensive in terms of manpower. Well that leads to the last leverage point that can be exploited and that is proper onboarding of new associates; these are the ones who will stock your shelves, interact with your customers, and run your pipe threaders so almost all of your evaluation metrics (and therefore your bonus) ride on them. I noticed a certain pattern by which new associates started off like gang busters and then after a month or so they would begin to tail off so that the kid who was you top performer last month was now spending half their shift on their phone. Everyone knows this, I saw it in every store I ever visited, and nobody knew what to do about it

    Why does this regression happen? Because your brand-new employee is like the new guy on his first day prison, bit scared and have little idea of what to expect out of this new social system or how they will operate within it. They will learn how to do so not by formal training, but by the social environment in which they are placed which either will be the one you explicitly construct or the one that by default will be imbibed of osmosis. The current play for onboarding is to throw training and therefore social orientation as another bureaucratic checkbox; you are parked in front of computer, left on your own for a week to do CBT, and then once done you come to the floor. Your new employee just spent a critical first week learning by osmosis what about how your store operates? About your culture? That nobody cares to personally spend time with him? What do you think they are doing by the second day their new job of being left alone to do CBT?

    You make or break your new employees within the first month, usually the first 2 weeks of their employment. To hell with HR and don’t wait until they are finished with their CBT, have them come out to the floor for at least ½ of their shifts and match them up with someone they can shadow but that someone needs to 1) move at a brisk pace 2) convey they like working at HD . The true goal of a military boot camp is not to physically train your recruits but to indoctrinate or immerse them into the social system of that military branch so they become a soldier rather than a civilian with white walled hair cut. Not only that but your DI are the exemplars of your service, they set the pace, and lead by example..

    Understand the onboarding psychology and implement. What if you don’t? Then as a store manager you are going to have a lousy workforce and you are going to be putting out fires rather than standing outside of your store talking to customers, finding fun ways to drive foot traffic, and doing the stuff that only you can do. However you have the excuse that you followed company procedure to the letter

  46. “HD store manager compensation will vary depending on location and store performance but even in a bad year in my neck of the woods a SM should pull in $100 K”
    I know nothing about that world, but that just seems shockingly low to me. I make way over $100k doing remote sensing analytics sort of stuff, and I can do stuff that not a ton of people can do, but our company doesn’t come close to making as much money as a big box store does, if they really gross $50M/yr. Are store managers really considered so replaceable that they make relatively so little? And if so, doesn’t that explain a lot about why the average store seems to be such a trainwreck, as all these stories above indicate?

  47. I had a bad experience with my local Home Depot and I stayed away about 10 years, costing the company thousands in lost sales. I went back because they had a particular item I needed that neither Lowes nor Menards carried.

    The store struck me as dingy and overstuffed, with lots of pallets and displays crowding the aisles. I had a good look too, because finding the item that the website said was in stock took plenty of wandering. The last time I went looking for it, I couldn’t find it- twice- and eventually just ordered off the website.

    I’m not blaming any employee for not helping me- I prefer to wander- but I will note that eventually I did ask one of them where it was and he didn’t know.

    Many years ago, I bought carpet from a nearby HD. When it arrived, the colors were notably different from what I saw in the store- and I’m pretty sure it was installed by illegal aliens. At the time, I was shocked by that. They did a good job, though.

    Worse, the store had a special running- free backing or some such- and they refused to honor it until I called and complained. I quit shopping at that location.

    Given the choice, I shop at Lowes and Menards before HD, because I’ve never had that sort experience with either.

    That’s my review of Home Depot.

  48. Mike,
    I spent a few years in proximity to big grocery stores and nothing you say surprises me.

    My thought sort of the opposite of Brian’s. If the managers aren’t going to actually manage anything, why pay them as much as $100K?

  49. A Mishmash of thoughts,

    I have been out of HD for a while and writing out these long comments has been a form of requiem for that experience. As I have been writing them, given my experience in that now somewhat more distant history, I see the opportunities\issues at HD in a new light. Some old friends that I knew from 20+ years and have regained since the tail end of HD have told me that was because HD had rotted my brain

    The more I think about Brian’s point re: store managers being underpaid at 100K given the scope of their responsibilities the more I started to see it as a leveraging insight into the larger miasma in which HD now finds itself. In the stores, SMs were those who had risen up from the ranks to become the top people in the stores now making 100K a year, for a minimum+ worker that’s heady stuff. the to become the highest n other words we saw those people, by and large, as a success who were now making the most money as any person in the stores. Furthermore in the breakrooms at the various HD I have visited they have pictures on the walls of various HD luminaries; some are your local district manager or regional VP, others are EVP or C-level people. They provide a quick career highlight for each person in order to drive home the point that they all came up from the stores, including that EVP for stores who was once a part-time cashier.

    That promotion from within was seen as plus, indicative of the great HD culture that we all are part of, the HD way. Wiel you can all see the downside of that, that such a culture that serves as a source of pride can be become insular and arrogant over time and history is rife with lessons about those sort of things.

    HD has hit a wall. Its big box stores are of course far and away its biggest money maker, but that format has just run its course as far as revenue growth. I haven’t seen the same-store revenue numbers numbers since I have left and this trend has been masked somewhat by the tremendous sales during the pandemic; FY21 saw a 25% boost in revenue, but the writing is one the wall as the market becomes saturated. HD has tried to open up new revenue streams using that big cash pile its sitting on, it reacqquired HD Supply (which it actually sold several years ago), to pursue the commercial market, built distribution centers to feed building supplies directly to commercial sites, has a few fancy design centers where you can go to get your kitchen remodeled but nothing that remotely approach the box store in terms of revenue potential..

    As I mentioned, HD corporate has seen the box stores more as cost centers than as investment opportunities for growth. It sees labor not as an asset to leverage new revenue but as a cost lemon to be squeezed to lower costs. Think about your long-term future when corporate leadership becomes only management and your c-suite strategy becomes indistinguishable from that of accountants

    The cost-cutting in labor is the other part of that big box dead-end wall. When HD went to a low-wage strategy it compensated in large part by empowering associates in relation to management. A time has elapsed since that decision, you have had a strong cultural shift as the older generation of workers with prior institutional memory have been replaced by new workers who see the compensation-empowerment trade-off as more “you pretend to pay us and we’ll pretend to work.” That culture shift means every interaction between labor and management is governed in some way by the implicit threat of the employee to ring up HR to have you investigated, and which also means that your boss will be reluctant to back you in a dispute lest it get to HR. When you take the pretend to pay-and work, the empty shelves, crappy condition of the stores, and HR as the hammer to be swung given a rat line call HD starts to look like the old USSR… but at everyday low prices. That means any initiative to enhance revenue in the store is going to run up against an unmotivated workforce that given actions at Starbucks and Amazon can be seen as threat to unionize.

    Apathetic workforce with poor customer service, horrible in-stock position as well as store appearance all of which is driving customers away. Store management (from the EVP on down) which recognizes these problems but has no effective strategy for fixing it. Staff and management meetings have become a Dilbertean Dystopia as we are told to implement the latest strategy dictated by Atlanta for us to realize that this was the same strategy that we had 4 years ago that was abandoned for the next shiny toy; when I started the focus was on customer service, that was abandoned 4 years ago in favor of in-stock, and when I left the company the new focus was on customer service as if this was some fabulous new idea. Forget the sinister Orwellian angle, this approach just brews cynicism that nobody knows what they are doing

    The problem with the dead end is that it truly is dead at the end. Big box provide the revenue heart beat, but has no growth. However other companies such as Lowes can see growth by picking at the decrepit HD empire…. which is what they are doing and everyone at HD knows it

    As an aside, I was with HD for several years until they started pushing competetior walks as company policy. I had been walking Lowes and various competitors for a long time before then and didn’t realize that nobody else was doing it. Of course the policy was just another Dilbertean hoop to jump through, nobody in upper management cared to ask what you saw let alone ask for a report. Needless to say nobody was going to care to implement any changes based on what the competition was doing, because why should;d we? We ere the best!

    So if the old culture, the Orange Promise/Inverted Pyramid/Yay Us, has run its course and isn’t the way forward then at the very least it cannot be allowed to obstruct the new blood, the new approaches that are needed (key another metaphor from the USSR, Perestroika) Good luck with that. At the very least there needs to be new people, new structures, and a new perspective on how the stores are run.

    New people is the easiest one to do, but will still be very difficult. You need to bring new leadership from the outside, not just from the top (hello new EVP) but also at the district/regional level to the store level. You need people who have no stake in the old way of doing things. Rather than paying a discount rate for a SM because they are being promoted from within, be willing to pay some good money at the outset to bring in some top-notch performers.

    New structures will be even harder but the model for this type of change will be an insurgency. Nobody how many people you bring in at the outset, they will be far outnumbered by those of the old culture. You put a new-breed SM in a store with old- breed employees and reporting to an old breed district manager and you will get nothing done, that bureaucratic infighting 101 and you need to be black belt at this type of infighting if you want to win. . Running pilots involving entire stores with new management and as many employees as you can bring along, that new management needs to extend up through Atlanta to provide the political cover for both the amount of time this will take and for the mistakes that will inevitably occur.

    New ways pf doing things. Some I mentioned in an earlier post and are related to one comment about maps not being the territory. The first is that all managers/leaders need to understand that the map is not the territory or better to understand the difference between known knowns and known unknowns. As we are not dealing wit the handling of high explosives or lethal viruses, the guiding principle should what you think is true but isn’t is what will get you killed (the known unknowns) and not the other part of that aphorism. How do you know your customer service is good? How you know what your customers are thinking about you? Your employees? What really makes me people want to do a good job? What keeps you up at night because you are concerned you are missing something… that’s the approach that leads you to spending a Saturday afternoon in front of your store (with snacks of course) stopping people and asking why they didn’t buy. That’s not in a company policy or a manual, but it’s the right thing to do and properly executing a bad policy doesn’t make you a leader or a superstar, it makes you a bureaucrat.

    One of the changes in cultural mindset is an obvious one, that of problem solving but there is another mindset that underlays even that and even that of pursuing the known unknowns and that is of curiosity. Many years ago when I was working in another field a consultant who was a few decades gave some very useful career advice – the first was don’t get involved with anyone in the office because there is no such thing as a consensual relationship between a superior and a subordinate. The second was to go through life with the mindset of an investigative reporter, that is be curious Don’t assume but have hypotheses and therefore ask questions, understand that the world is a wondrous place and thank goodness other people have ideas and knowledge different than our own.

    The downhill slide for me at HD was accelerated when I got into a discussion with a superior regarding better ways to deal with our apathetic workforce if we were ever going to improve store performance. The arguments I got back were that was just the ways were, that what could you expect from a workforce that was minimum+ in terms of compensation? Cue we pretend to pay and they pretend to work or that we need to motivate through inspiration when they all know we’re scared they will call HR (I was rewatching the original Matrix movie the other night and I laughed at the scene where Agent Smith meets Neo for the first time, shows him the huge file they have kept on him, and when bringing up with Neo will cooperate, told him “one of these people has a future, one doesn’t” I think that scene pretty much captured my interaction with HR)…

    Anyway I brought up a “competitor walk” I had done a few months before, I put it in quotes because it wasn’t a big box or home improvement store but rather a fast food place that was full of minimum+ workers. In-n-Out. I love I-N-Out. For a number of reasons. it has a special emotional resonance with me and while I don’t close by one anymore any time I’m traveling by one of those locations I stop by. It’s one of the few places, outside of bars, I enjoy giving a business money and it’s not just for the food. You usually have 8-10 minute after you order before you get the food and that gives you a chance to see how the employees work behind the counter and it is a show. The workforce is young and they are probably all minimum+ but they all move at brisk pace, know what they are doing, and I cannot tell which one of them is actually in charge because nobody seems to give orders. On top of that every employee who interacts with the customer makes a positive emotional connection that is congruent with the restaurant’s 50s California theme. In short it’s a fun place to be, for everyone, I couldn’t say the same for HD.

    So I asked that superior why in terms of employee performance couldn’t we be more like In-N-Out? The answers I got back were “it’s a different business, fast food is different than retail”, “they have fewer locations, fewer employees than we do so they don’t have the onboarding pressures we do”, and so on. In short all assumptions with no real facts because this guy had no idea what In-N-Out was, all he knew twas that he got an informal competitor walk that challenged the HD way of doing things, his professional way of life, and since it was from a subordinate he could easily denigrate then ignore it. In-N-Out had nothing to teach him

    Inspiring isn’t it and sort of explains in a way all the complaints about HD.

    A good manager, a good leader should always be curious, asking questions in pursuit of the unknown of new ideas… he should be always Why?

    And we should be willing to pay more to get those people.

  50. I’ll chime in with my own HD employee story, an incident that really showed me that HD management has some structural and attitude issues.

    SOme years ago, my buddy and I had been working on a lot of small building/renovation projects, at his shop and around Los Angeles. We knew the drill with the several HD’s we had to use regularly. We had our own “go-to” employees at a couple stores — George in one Paint Dept was “our guy”, for example. This was due to us being very friendly and recognizing that some HD folks were signifigantly more motivated and helpful than others.

    We also had some shortcuts for getting what we needed, especially with inventory. My buddy was young, tall, and prone to impatience, on more than one occasion, when what we needed was still on a pallet way up high, he would monkey-climb the pallet racks to get it, often with his phone in one hand looking at HD’s SKUs while he walked sideways 15′ off the floor. (He is half Native American and really does have that genetic freakish balance thing.)

    Since a customer climbing the racks could get people fired, we learned that the next time we were there, just the threat of climbing to get it ourselves could magically summon a forklift crew. And we were willing to help, too: Once when we needed a gallon of paint solvent, but that involved pulling down a new pallet we could see right above us, we called over the paint dept lead (the aforementioned George, who became our homeboy that day) and told him … My God, the foot dragging, the indecision in his eyes. Getting that pallet would mean having to stock all those cans from the pallet onto the shelves, right then, and he had other things to do … all this was clear from non-verbal cues. So we told them, “Hey, we get it, we will help you stock all that product so we can get our stuff…. Or….” When my buddy just casually grabbed onto the rack as if to start climbing, he decided to “GET ER DONE!” Between us we re-stocked that shelf like it was the HD Olympics. George and the other employee were always a little quicker to help us after that.

    But the heart of this story is the day we needed some pneumatic nails, which showed up as being in stock, but were just nowhere to be found. It was evening, we needed these NOW to keep working, so we searched. An employee, a kid on hus second week there, tried to help us. He went and got one of the “in-store” inventory thingies, to look in places HD’s website could not see, and yep, it said they had 10+ boxes, but not there, the “status” was “TR”. No idea what “TR” meant, neither did the kid. After almost 15 minutes of puzzling and even climbing up to look at SKUs on mixed pallets, we gave up, thanked the kid, and got in line to check out our other stuff then go to another HD.

    While we were self-scanning our stuff, we suddenly heard a commotion from one end of the store. It was the two-week employee kid, he was coming towards us waving boxes of nails and yelling “Tool Rental! Tool Rental!” He had cracked the code: “TR” was the Tool Rental department, and he was so excited and happy he was now running toward us with the stuff we wanted!

    Immediately, I asked him: “Who is your manager? I want to make sure they know you went above and beyond for us.” He looked around, and pointed to short plump, self-satisfied woman in her late 30’s wearing an HD orange vest completely decorated with patches and pins and “flair”. Let’s call her “Seniorita Manicure.” She was already looking rather askanse at us, maybe because were were being loud. I walked over and said something like:

    ME: “Ma’am, your employee here, he’s brand new but really, really helped us out today, He’s smart and went out of his way to help us find what we wanted to buy. He deserves a bonus or at least a gold star today. I want to make sure this is noted.”

    SM: “Well, sir, you can go to our website and find this Home Depot store and choose “Customer Feedback” and be sure to include his Employee Number…”

    ME: “EXCUSE ME?!”

    SM: “…Uh, yes, you can go online and fill out the form under Customer…”

    ME: “WHAT? Look, lady, I don’t want to go to your website. I want to tell an actual human being that one of your employees did a great job. But instead of a human being I find myself talking to YOU.”

    SM: “Well really the best way is to use Home Depot’s website, for employee evaluations….”

    ME: “So I am standing here telling you, a manager, that an employee personally helped us when your website could not, and you brush me off and say, ‘Go to our Website.’ Do you in any way see the, like, disconnect here? That this is Franz Kafka, “Brazil”, Alanis Morrissette “Isn’t It Ironic” territory? Or are you just disempowered and helpless and wish it was different? Or are you Part of the Problem?”

    SM: “I see the irony. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

    Before we left, I told the kid, “You saw that, right? You have a bright future, but not here. Learn anything you can in six months then move on.”


  51. BRetty,

    I wrote the long comments I did largely to organize thoughts about my HD experience in the sense if I had to give 1-hour presentation to summarize the lessons I took from my experiences at a once-proud company that would be the general direction of it. Part of it was the delusional hope that somebody high up the food chain at HD reads this blog and it might have an impact

    I sure do hope they read your comment because you nailed it on both accounts

    The willingness of your guy to scale the racking to get to that pallet made me laugh, I’ve had similar experiences with customers though not to that extreme. I’ve had customers climb ladders to take boxes down from the overhead, commandeer inventory phones from hapless employees and when my people would complain I would tell them two things 1) We keep telling customer that they can do it and they are clearly showing they are 2) We tell customers we can help and we are clearly not. I used it as a lesson in motivation. That combined with the reluctance of those to drop the pallet because they would have to pack it out…. yeah, been there.

    The manager who kept pushing you toward the Web site for employee recognition, I guess I see her logic because of trying to capture the info and retain it for later and blah blah blah….. but what a pathetic display of leadership. She should have called the employee over, called him out, publicly given his an award, and thanked you profusely for taking the time to tell her and could you please go to the Web site.

    The sad thing is that that is the type of employee who would have made sure the problem of your buddy climbing the racking would never have happened. The sadder thing is that I would imagine after a month that employee’s performance would have drifted back to the mean because he would have found it out it doesn’t pay to go the extra mile not because you would get punished, but because no one cares,. I told all my new hires to have a six month plan as far as what they could learn from their HD experience to take to a new job (hopefully at HD, but if not elsewhere). We were told that HD took care of our people, but no one did that for them. Part of it was to teach the young guys how to develop their own career, part of it was for their own piece of mind

    Autonomy, competence, and belonging ( See Steve Magness’ Do Hard Things). That’s what makes a great employee

    Is anyone at HD listening? Is anyone at Lowes listening? Call me

  52. Climbing the racks. Twenty odd years ago I briefly considered working for the company that HD contracted with to maintain things like paint shakers and those big powered racks for things like wire and carpet. That came to a screeching halt when the guy that was interviewing me while taking me through a store to show me the job told me that the way I’d be accessing all those drives and such 15 feet above a very hard floor would be by climbing them. No way was I going to get involved with an organization that wantonly stupid.

    Lowe’s and HD have both killed customers by dropping a pallet on them while trying to pick a pallet from the far side of those racks. That’s one of the problems it probably takes three or four people besides the forklift operator to block off the aisles and watch that no one gets into a dangerous area.

  53. Back in the late 1980s while I was in college, I helped my mother do inventory at Strawbridge & Clothier (no longer exists) for a sheets/bedspread supplier. The department had 3 storage areas with ABSOLUTELY no organization & inventory was scattered in all 3 storage areas. We would have to search storage & move around items from other manufacturers to do the inventory. When I asked my mother why we didn’t organize the inventory she said that was not our responsibility. I was an education major & I understood the problem. Still today I feel sorry for the clerk heading back to search…

  54. The problem with Lowes management is just as bad as HD, just different issues.
    Grew up in a hardware store, managed other stores, installed our first Point of Sale/Inventory Control system in 1987, so I understand some of the issues.

    It’s great to be a large corporate store with huge inventories, because smaller stores can’t survive with the customer service you find at the big box stores.

    I was recently putting up a fence around a house I had bought as a foreclosure and remodeled. I was using what is really portable fencing, since the post use a flange that is driven in the ground, and then metal fence sections that look like wrought iron are just installed between posts. Simple, fast and actually fairly cheap. Total cost of the fence was less then $2k.
    I had bought all the posts and fence sections the local store had in stock. I still needed an additional 15 fence sections and 17 posts to finish the job. According to their inventory, they had 26 fence sections and 15 posts. Only they didn’t.
    It’s common for inventory control systems to be off slightly, but usually not that much for items that would unlikely to be sold using another sku.
    Anyway, I tried bypassing the store, and ordering online– but because the store had stock, it wouldn’t let me order ship to home or even ship to store, just pick up in store, since they had inventory. I finally went to the store and I clerk ordered them for me using their computer. Great. I suggested they should fix their inventory count– but was met with just a blank stare.

  55. When we proudly moved into our $26million state-of-the-art library building in ’94, one of the features and bragging points was the big installation of compact (i.e. movable) shelving in my special collections stack areas.

    Fully electronic with digital display for objects in the way, every carriage powered by its own little DC motor, with safety features to protect us from death. Features that proved their lack of effectiveness many times over, and quickly.

    Oh, nobody was harmed, but we lost a number of sturdy library step-stools for reaching high shelves–expensive items, crushed like tin cans to about half their width by enough force to crush a human limb or torso, easily.

    I had to display signage and train people not to trust the system but only their own senses.
    Both of the large stack areas were basically identical, and restricted to staff of course–we had unique and irreplaceable archives as well as a fortune in expensive books–which also had to be protected from the system

    I retired in ’15, burned out by administrivia and encroaching PC. My successor (and neighbor) told me recently that he’s gotten the OK to take one stack area manual–out with all the antique hi-tech gear and back to simple safety. Partly because one of his recent hires only escaped serious harm because she was small and very athletic.

    When I was an undergrad I worked 20-30 hours a week for about a year, nights and weekends, at a plastics factory. I was the styrofoam packing man, operating two big hydraulic injection molds which used heat and high pressure to make those odd shapes that protect appliances and the like in their boxes. I was told that while the molds themselves were not that heavy, they closed with enough force to pinch off a limb.

    So when a piece didn’t come out properly, timing one’s little nudge or jiggle to coax it was important. I was fine with that, personally, but I always left with styrofoam ‘doobles’–the tiny plastic seeds that pop to make the little styroflakes–all over me, and it was hot and wet around the mold rigs.

    The guys across the floor on the cup-making line felt comfortable tripping at work–to fight burnout, one said. Some of them had been there for years.

  56. I worked for a small publisher, our catalog had about 120 titles of which 30 were current sellers, the rest were back list items, essentially leftovers from previous years. The current items we’d have 1000’s in stock, the backlist maybe 10 -200 of each title. When I started they had no idea of what was in inventory – so I and the boss inventoried the warehouse so we knew what was available for sale. Its weird to be called by the office, asked about a old back list title, tell the person you have 20 on hand and have them be shocked you have the information. I thought that was the normal way of doing business.

    (in defense of the previous warehouse people, they operated part time and the building was undersized for what was stored in it).

    Also, I used to install libraries, only did mobile shelving a few times but its was kind of fun as the work was different. The electric systems had pressure switches under the floor to stop the shelving from closing on people, but I thought the manual system was better.

  57. The electronic safety stops didn’t work very well. Other than that . . . I’d have taken manual if they had asked me.

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