My personal favorite example of taking lemons and making lemonade comes from the early days of Wal-Mart, long before they became The World’s Largest Retailer.
Our story begins at an early Wal-Mart store, located in an economically depressed region. The store gained the dubious distinction for having the largest inventory shrinkage rate of all their stores. Shoplifting was rampant.
Squeezing The Lemon
Desperate for a solution, the store manager placed an employee at the entrance of the store who greeted all entering customers with Welcome to Wal-mart! How y’all doin? while rolling a shopping cart into their path. No one realized that his primary function was to act as a deterrent to the exiting shoplifters who had previously bypassed cashiers by slipping out the entrance.
With an permanent employee casually watching the entrance, shoplifting dropped off significantly. Other Wal-Mart store managers implemented the idea. The manager’s successful solution inadvertently created a corporate icon; The Wal-Mart Greeter. The idea coincidentally made three significant contributions in the building of a juggernaut.
- It reduced inventory shrinkage throughout the chain for years to come without hiring more expensive security guards.
- It created a friendly, folksy image that endeared Wal-Mart to their rural customers.
- That same down home image helped Wal-Mart to fly under the radar of the ever-complacent Kmart brass in suburban Detroit, who didn’t take those simple folks from Arkansas seriously until it was too late.
Lemonade indeed! Where would Wal-Mart’s wealthy early shareholders be today if the manager either ignored the problem or simply hired a uniformed, armed security guard?
What about YOUR Lemons?
The late Sam Walton relentlessly sought useful ideas where ever and whenever possible. His insistence on seeing the same curiosity and zeal for innovation from his associates is legendary.
Building a culture of innovation and improvement was a key ingredient in Wal-Mart’s recipe for success. Do the answers lie within for you? What was the last significant, innovative solution implemented by your organization? Where did the idea originate? How was it communicated? What mechanisms can you put in place to take your lemons and make lemonade?
This story is told in Sam Walton’s biography, Made in America. It’s still a good read.