Scrum at the Book Store

"You can Scrum anything that is a list." That's what my Scrum teacher, Hubert Smits told me. And being a crazy person, and someone who was not born a fully-formed project manager in a major software company, I started to think of atypical use cases.

I work in a book store, so I thought, I wonder if you can Scrum that?

The answer is... potentially, yes.

Now, you may be wondering what even is Scrum? Here is an explanation that takes 300 seconds or less.

We're good now? Good! On with the story...

At the time, my boss had just been handed down a major new initiative that was supposed to change the company forever and make everyone successful, a real game changer. Offer a credit card.

I know.

A credit card? That's the game changer? First reaction is to yawn or roll your eyes. But I had just completed a Scrum certification, and was naturally thinking of things in terms of agile values, so I saw this a little differently.

The first thing that anyone could have told me without even setting foot inside my store is that our retail establishment was just about the opposite of agile. The management structure of the entire company is very top-down command-and-control in both philosophy and infrastructure. Please keep in mind, these are not criticisms. One of the values Scrum has is openness, basically honesty. Call things what they are. Command and control is the default choice for companies born in the 20th century. There's no shame in that. And once a culture is in place, it is in place. No one likes change, least of all at the place where the bread and butter comes from. If you treat changing a culture as a trivial thing, you'll likely end up breaking things, or yourself, or both. And command-and-control has served the company at least well enough for the business not to implode. But from my perspective, I could also see where that management style was causing chafing, and getting in the way of the new goal they had.

As it just so happened, I was being cross-trained to fill in as a head cashier in addition to my duties as the digital lead. Head cashiers are the main people responsible for making sure customers sign up for the credit card. They are also supposed to be something like mini-managers making sure the other cashiers are falling in line, staying on task and doing what the bosses want them to do.

The store had a real need. Artificial, though it may be, it was a genuine priority for the higher-ups. So naturally our store went about using tried-and-true C&C to enforce the change.

  • They held meetings where they told the staff about the program.
  • They made sure to let them know that the company and all of their jobs were at stake.
  • They made belief in the new credit card mandatory.
  • They assigned a specific way to pitch the card to customers, designed by someone above the store level.
  • They assigned very high goals so the staff would hustle and get as many as they physically could.
  • They compared the cashiers' metrics against each other to get them to compete and drive more sign-ups.
  • They made sure the metric was important with end-of-day announcements like "Well, we sold a lot of product. We were 20% over plan today, but we got zero credit card sign-ups, so today was basically a failure."

If you have ever worked for a command-and-control company, you might already guess what the effect of these measures was. The managers were frustrated to find that despite their concerted effort, the staff was not motivated, and the metrics showed that. Our store was number nine in a district of twelve.

Maybe the staff of a retail store can never be as committed as someone with four times the earning potential. Maybe expecting more than mediocrity from a retail staff is just not realistic.

Still, other stores in the district were getting better results. At the number one store, the general manager had delegated literally every single one of his duties so that he could be on the floor at all hours standing behind each of his employees and making sure they were pitching the card and getting results. Or else!

Our store manager was not prepared to go to that level of involvement in a single initiative. He, like any other general manager, has hundreds of different irons in the fire. He's responsible for a three-story book store with 90+ employees. He was not willing to stress his staff the same way, nor was he willing to put his administrative burden on his already overloaded managerial staff. But this initiative was priority one to his bosses. He didn't think the staff couldn't do it. He hired them all, and believed in the team he created. If only he could make them see what he was seeing with this program, they'd be committed like he was.

So into this world I was basically dropped as a head cashier in training. In scrum, high priority items rise to the top of the list. Regardless of how we personally feel about them, by doing the high priority items first, our clients are pleased with the result. The highest value is delivered with the least ammount of waste. Job one was signing people up for the credit card. Doing this would make our bosses happy with us. If our bosses are happy with us, then we get more hours, more respect, and better working conditions. The store already had a few high-fliers with sign-ups who the managers praised in order to motivate others, but how to get the rest of the staff working together toward that goal? This is where scrum comes in.

In the past, I have attempted to improve the store's work culture. I read numerous books on Disney's customer service model and sales culture and then tried to turn our book store into Disneyland. I learned a lot from that experience, and so this time around I didn't try to enact a whole paradigm and behavior shift all by myself. Our store was not going to start scrumming in the sense that a scrappy start-up dev shop might. I had to be sneaky, know the agile values and which practices to enact to bring feasible benefits to the store.

Our store has a great untapped resource, which is the staff. Our staff all like books, are all respectful of each other's book passions, and we all are connected over facebook. Even former staff members are still part of that network. That is not always the case in retail stores. And a C&C management style has no means to leverage that community. Scrum, however, has a principle called "Self-Organizing Teams" which can grasp this resource and wield it with great effect.

Unlike Command and Control Management, a self-organizing team doesn't need the manager to hold it's hand and keep in on task. A self-organizing team is empowered to do what it sees as necessary in order to achieve the goals management has determined are of greatest value. It is also respected enough to enact changes on itself in order to optimize for its unique conditions. It is a team of experts who are aware and committed, not just involved, in the delivery of value. And just like a baseball team, the whole team wins, or the whole team loses. If the shortstop misses the ball, the shortstop didn't loose the game. The team lost the game. And the team is responsible for picking itself up and learning from its failures in order to win the next game, not flog itself or flog the shortstop for lack of compliance. Discipline like that might make people feel better, but it certainly doesn't turn a past failure into a success. Only committed self-organized professionals can accomplish that.

So self-organization for our store seemed a natural thing to promote. The staff already does it socially and the managers would be relieved to have one less thing to worry about. They could simply report success to their bosses and report their bosses pleasure back to the team in between the other 10,000 tasks they have to handle each day. So in order to encourage self-organization, I started with a variation on The Daily Scrum, also known as The Daily Stand-up, at the start of each cashier's shift.

Our store is busy, and already has a start-of-shift status meeting, so we couldn't afford to take more time with meetings, nor risk changing the format. No one likes change. So instead I'd conduct The Daily Stand-up one-on-one at the cash registers when there was 15 to 30 seconds of down-time. This involved three simple questions which I take down on a post-it note:

  1. How many credit cards did you get last shift you were on register?
  2. Based on that, how many do you think you can get today?
  3. Is there anything that could potentially block you from achieving that goal?

The first two questions are designed to kill any magical thinking, base estimates on reality, and allow the cashier to self-commit.

Managers sometimes like to cover their tails. That's excusable and even encouraged in a C&C environment. It's easy to throw a number over the wall at the black box representing the staff and expect a number to be thrown back over the wall at the end of the day. If the staff didn't achieve the number, it is no longer the manager's fault. The ball wasn't in their court.

Magical thinking is a heap of wishful expectations. No matter what or how much I throw over the wall, if I don't get the expected return it's because the team isn't competent enough, or they're being lazy.

But by having the cashier evaluate their own performance and make an estimate based on that, it doesn't allow any magical thinking to even form. It also allows for the staff to face the limitations of reality and not over-promise and under-deliver.

It's important to base goals on reality. It's a very popular strategy among managers to give an unreasonably high goal and expect that the staff will naturally bust their butts to achieve it and maximize the return. If the staff returns more than the goal, obviously the goal was too low. You don't want the staff to stop after they've reached the goal, so you make that goal even higher and make sure the carrot is always just out of reach.

But humans are funny animals. In reality, this kind of shoot-for-the-moon strategy destroys staff confidence. From the staff's perspective they are always failing. And in biological systems, when an organism always fails, it is programmed to give up and not waste more energy. And that's exactly what happens with a staff that is constantly set-up for failure by high goals like these. The productivity drops. Discipline becomes the status-quo. Job satisfaction bottoms out and so do the money-making metrics.

But by having the staff base their estimates on what they know they've succeeded in the past, and working towards that, you set them up for success. They also commit to their own goal like the self-determining respectable human beings all employers want. And when they feel they are winning, and in reality they are, they try harder. Their estimates increase day-to-day and overall metrics grow. Job satisfaction sky-rockets along with some great results for the company. Everyone wins.

That is why when someone would give me a ridiculous number, say 10 cards in a four hour shift, I'd say "Take it easy. Try just for one today. you did two last time, but that was an eight hour shift. You think you can do one?"

If there is a comment for number three, I make sure to write it down. If it's something that is within the cashier's scope of authority, I work with them to help them create a solution for themself. If it is beyond their scope, I make sure to escalate that thing to the managers, or the head cashiers, or whoever I need to. I make it my responsibility to advocate for the team, and help them win. If the answer is "No blockers", I make sure to let them know that if they think of anything at all, that my job as a head cashier is to remove obstacles from their path and set them up for success.

The combination of giving support to the cashiers with the empowerment to solve their own problems was a major factor in building engagement. No more did the managers need to mandate belief in the card. The employees decided for themselves to commit, and the numbers clearly showed that self-organization was helping achieve the precious metrics.

We went from ninth, to first in the district. And we were 24th out of 130 stores in a company contest. The store manager was pleased, and so was his boss. Adding to the prestige, the previous number-one manager was calling our store asking our manager what his secret was. It was around that time that I mentioned what I had been doing down at the first floor registers far away from the manager's office.

I got employee-of-the-month for all this, which was nice. I was in the right place at the right time and with the right insight. But what was much more satisfying was watching the change in company culture. I knew I had something when I caught two cashiers sharing credit card strategies without me. They were self-organizing! That was probably the most thrilling part of the whole thing.

As we go forward, we'll be ready for any new directives that come down the pipe from the central office. We now have a simple tool and the right mindset to roll with whatever they throw our way. As of right now, we still don't have a full scrum implementation by any stretch of the imagination, but with self-organization and a few post-it notes, we are becoming agile none-the-less.