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Continual Improvement: The Store Manual And Learning
Patrick Onions, Knowledge Management Consultant
Every company needs a guide through the maze - photo by skittledog
Continual improvement is all about analysing the current situation, learning from both past mistakes and successes, and putting that learning into practice with a step-by-step approach. But how do make sure that everyone is following best practice to make continual improvement a reality?

This is the subject of the sixth and final article in a series about a DIY superstore (Woodlands DIY, based in Horsforth, Leeds) who revitalised their business.

A store manual

Every business should have a comprehensive document that clearly describes the policies, procedures and duties that staff are expected to comply with. This provides a stable, formal understanding that staff may use to learn their jobs, guide their actions and check performance against.

Some store manuals offer guidelines that suggest behaviour and provide direction, whilst others set out rigid rules that are worded with legal precision.

Woodlands chose a slightly different approach, in keeping with its strategy of continuous improvement. The store manual became the repository of knowledge, a collection of best practices and experience that staff could learn from and pass on to new employees.

As such it served a number of functions: a source of training material, a means of guidance, a set of standards, a way of sharing what staff knew, and a set of formal rules to govern discipline.
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The golden rule

A golden rule was written into the Woodlands store manual: all customers should leave the store satisfied and willing to return, even if they did not find what they came to purchase.

This typified the approach to the manual and to managing staff: explain the strategy and describe the brand so that staff could easily identify with the culture and display the attitudes and values that the business was trying to uphold.

This approach applied to the details as well, and the manual was written to teach and explain rather than to command. Each activity was explained and a standard set, rather than giving a terse instruction.

For example, rather than say, "You will clean the toilets at 5pm each day", this instruction became, "Toilets should be cleaned daily because staff and customers expect a level of hygiene; and cleaned before closing so as to flush odours and waste away and give the washed rooms a chance to dry before reuse the next day."

Learning

Any form of improvement involves learning, whether it is about what works or what doesn't. It involves experimentation, sharing and remembering. The true function of the store manual is therefore in retaining knowledge, and the act of writing things down makes people think and crystallise their understanding.

Let's take the saw room as an example. These are dirty and potentially dangerous environments that require constant attention. The team began with a quick brainstorm that produced a mind-map of the saw-room activities, as illustrated below.

Each of these activities was then described in detail, for example "sweep and vacuum" was described as follows:

"Sweeping is a daily activity to keep the dust down. Try not to sweep too vigorously as this suspends a lot of fine dust in the air that then settles on merchandise. Do not leave small piles as you go or if you are interrupted. Pick up and place in the bin immediately so as to stop the wind from blowing dust about.

"Vacuuming is a weekly activity needed to clean properly, especially in gaps and under racks and shelves. Empty the vacuum cleaner when half full - take care not to rip the bag."

These points may seem obvious to an experienced shop worker, but may not be so obvious to someone straight out of school in their first job. In doing this staff also learned more about their duties, human resources have a better job description for recruiting and pay-grading, management realised the full extent of their responsibilities, and everyone became better employees as a result.

In conclusion

Continuous improvement turned out to be an effective strategy in driving change and turning around this large DIY store. These improvements were achieved by empowering the staff and identifying small opportunities in every area of the business, and the project cost far less than a 'big bang' approach would have.

The owners allowed the team the time and freedom to try new things and take on new responsibilities, and were rewarded with more positive attitudes and substantial improvements in turnover and profitability. So too were customers, and this has certainly improved the store's standing in the community.

The store has been in business for 100 years and they are in a good position to be in business for another hundred.

Patrick Onions is principal consultant at The Knowledge Studio and an experienced practitioner in knowledge, information and project management. For more information visit www.knowledgestudio.co.uk

More articles in this series...
Continual Improvement: Pulling Together
First impressions don't count - lasting impressions do
Continual Improvement: Finding new Customers
Continual improvement: More than a fresh coat of paint
Double Our Turnover? You're Having A Laugh!
Continual Improvement: The Store Manual And Learning, 1st October 2012, 22:01 PM