Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Patrick Onions
Knowledge Management Consultant
1:50 PM 12th July 2012

Continual improvement: More than a fresh coat of paint

Photo by Mini OzzY
Photo by Mini OzzY
Continual improvement is not a fresh coat of paint. It is an on-going approach taken on by each person in the business, aiming to increase efficiency, reduce waste, boost effectiveness and learn one step at a time. On the shop floor everyone works toward the common goal by spotting problems and opportunities, making small improvements, reflecting on the outcomes and sharing what they have discovered with others.

This requires people to be in the right frame of mind, so a solid start is essential. Continual improvement initiatives often begin with establishing a culture, setting goals, putting standards in place and mobilising the team. One way to proceed is in the classroom, another is to start the ball rolling on the shop floor.

These first steps are the subject of this second article in a series about a DIY superstore (Woodlands DIY, based in Horsforth, Leeds)that revitalised their business.

A starting point

Work on the DIY superstore began with customer experience, for good reason. Unhappy customers, glum staff and rather uninspiring sales were troubling. Shopper demographics were skewed toward older males and service would be an important factor in attracting new markets. Some quick wins were needed to bolster store performance, lift morale, demonstrate the approach would work and even pay for improvements.

A common goal was first set; to offer a great customer experience, making the store a pleasant place to shop and delighting customers. Happy shoppers are inquisitive, dwell longer, place more in their baskets, show loyalty and are more likely to tell their friends. Competing on service and not on price leads to increased margins, most cost-effective advertising and more stable customer relationships.

DIY stores are no exception. Builders may be low-maintenance customers, but are probably not the most profitable market segment. They shop around, are price sensitive and quite focused in their needs. A non-trade customer on the other hand may need help with the difference between a inch and inch pipe, and price will factor less into their purchase decision.

First activities

Housekeeping and painting were chosen as the first activities. The shop was dusty and a little untidy, but mainly these were seen as simple tasks that could mobilise everyone without requiring much guidance and standards.

Staff set about cleaning alongside the consultant. Every product, shelf, machine, counter, nook and cranny was vacuumed and left spotless. Along the way a list of improvements and obsolete equipment was compiled. Safety risks were identified, insights gathered and issues prioritised. Staff learned from the consultant how other companies operated and why it is necessary to turn products so their labels face the same way. The exercise built teamwork and revealed who would really support the project.

Repainting followed the cleaning, a major chore that was completed one section at a time. Bare or badly painted concrete floors are not aesthetically pleasing; they weather faster, gritty finishes make it difficult to sweep and spills are impossible to clean up. Floor space is a valuable commodity and can be used to display merchandise and even as a store feature.

A signal to customers and suppliers

Cleaning is a conspicuous signal. A sparkling shop is more attractive, no one likes buying dusty merchandise, and the act of tidying up is a visible cue that staff care. Shoppers sense something is brewing, triggering powerful emotions of intrigue and curiosity.

Cleaning causes disruption, but this can be treated as an opportunity. Create a mystery, put specials and promotions in prominent positions, have sales, and force employees onto the shop floor to interact. It is incredible how forgiving people can be if their inconvenience is explained and a little help offered with a smile.

Cleaning impresses supplier representatives too. Big suppliers know their products and markets, they have promotional budgets and visit all the competition. Invite the reps to review progress and make suggestions. Usually they will contribute promotional signage, but free display stands and merchandise may also be available in return for promotion and preferential floor space.

Some lessons

Store visits were a success. They are a valuable way to learn about what the competition are doing, to give staff ideas and reveal what customers are expecting. All staff were sent in pairs to visit other DIY retailers in the region, and the exercise was repeated several months later. Remember to repeat visits annually to keep up the competitive spirit and ensure the store doesn't fall behind in the marketing game.

Business outcomes were generally pleasing, particularly since the financial outlay was some paint, brushes and time. The store looked a whole lot better, the team began to sense a new future and customer compliments started to trickle in. This helped to secure the owner's commitment to the project and build a foundation for subsequent improvements.

Coming up

The next part in this series will look at brands, how to find out who your customers really are, and why a diverse clientele can save an ailing business.

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