More Retail Taylorism (The Whole Story)


Updated 11/17/08 10 PM central

If you have WSJ access, check out today's article “Stores Count Seconds to Trim Labor Costs”. I thought, oh no punitive Taylorism… And sure enough they reference Taylor.

Be sure to see the end of the article about the cashier workarounds. I'll blog more about this tonight with quotes from the article.


Dr. Deming's 11th point read:

a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

Click here to read all 14 points.

Growing up in Detroit, we shopped at Meijer stores. These were basically Super Wal-Marts and Super Targets before either of those existed. Now, they're somewhat in the Lean Blog “Retail Hall of Shame” with Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Ann Taylor stores.

Meijer is using work standards in a way that certainly seems to push “quantity over quality” and might not only piss off some customers but might also alienate their employees. Doesn't seem like a recipe for long-term success.

Meijer has used a consulting firm (a bunch of Industrial Engineers gone bad, I guess) to put this “management” system in place:

Daniel A. Gunther has good reason to keep his checkout line moving at the Meijer Inc. store north of Detroit. A clock starts ticking the instant he scans a customer's first item, and it doesn't shut off until his register spits out a receipt.

To assess his efficiency, the store's computer takes into account everything from the kinds of merchandise he's bagging to how his customers are paying. Each week, he gets scored. If he falls below 95% of the baseline score too many times, the 185-store megastore chain, based in Walker, Mich., is likely to bounce him to a lower-paying job, or fire him.

If you're too slow — you're FIRED! That's straight out of the famous “I Love Lucy” candy factory clip. That counts as management “innovation”?? To be fair, the article points out that managers first attempt to give additional training to “slow” employees before leaping to firing them. How progressive of them!

Some customers appreciate the focus on efficiency and speed. I mean, who likes waiting in long lines? But, you can take efficiency and speed too far if you're not also looking at customer service.

Interviews with cashiers at 16 Meijer stores suggest that its system has spurred many to hurry up — and has dialed up stress levels along the way. Mr. Gunther, who is 22 years old, says he recently told a longtime customer that he couldn't chat with her anymore during checkout because he was being timed. “I was told to get people in and out,” he says. Other cashiers say they avoid eye contact with shoppers and generally hurry along older or infirm customers who might take longer to unload carts and count money.

It's not just me who doesn't like systems like this:

“If it is the type of job where you can lay out every element of the job, then you might get more output per hour” using such a system, says Barry Hirsch, a labor professor in the economics department at Georgia State University. “But if it is a job that requires things that can't be quantified — special effort for a customer, or just being friendly — then delineating things too carefully for how employees behave can decrease productivity, because you're just so focused on working to precise guidelines.”

The overall aystem employed at Meijer is called “labor waste elimination.” Speeding people up, or pressuring them to work faster, and not letting them focus on quality and service isn't really waste reduction. The only true example of waste reduction in the article:

… added fingerprint readers to cash registers so cashiers can sign in for work directly at their registers, not at a time clock, “saving minutes of wasted time,” says Roy Smith Jr., the former director of Meijer's Benton Harbor, Mich., store.

Steps saved… now that's actually an example of eliminating the “waste of motion.”

So as I was reading this, I started to think “well how do people work around the system?” There's always a way… people are very clever at working around quota systems and “gaming the system.” Sure enough… right at the end of the article:

Ms. Barry, the DeWitt cashier, who says her weekly score usually hits or exceeds the baseline, admits to using a few tricks to improve her times. She makes heavy use of the register's “suspend button,” which stops the clock. The system detects when remote scanning guns are used, automatically allowing slightly more time to scan big items that stay in the cart. Ms. Barry sometimes uses the remote scanner for nonbulky merchandise.

“It is pretty much survival,” she says. “You have to learn the tricks of the trade.”

Ms. Barry probably wishes she hadn't admitted that in a major publication. Not very good for “survival” I'd bet. So much for that workaround. Thanks for ruining that workaround for your co-workers!!

It's a sad form of management when you rely on using work standards to punish employees. Work standards and even the Lean/TPS concept of “takt time” don't necessarily have to violate the “respect for people” principle. Having an expected time to complete a task isn't necessarily bad if it's used for planning purposes and to determine optimal staffing. But when you use quotas or time standards in punative ways, that's where it runs the risk of being degrading and also runs the risk of destroying quality and the customer experience. When will people learn?

As with the recent “office 5S” story, is the WSJ highlighting Meijer's practices because they're funny and absurd, or because this is considered a good business practice that should be followed??

A list of stores that use similar systems (if you want to avoid them) include:

Gap Inc., TJX Cos., Limited Brands Inc., Office Depot Inc., Nike Inc., and Toys “R” Us Inc.

Funny, last time I was in an Office Depot, me and the other four customers who wanted to pay had ZERO checkout people. So after standing there for a minute, I put my product down and stomped out, going to the nearby Staples. So much for labor efficiency! I'm sure the store was hitting some sort of financial labor efficiency metric. Of course when you have zero revenue, the “hours per sale” metric hits infinity…. D'Oh!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. There’s not much “respect for people” anywhere in that system that Meijer is running, other than maybe first trying to provide more training (instead of just first firing anyone who is slow). What a dehumanizing system. You can have work standards, but when you start applying quotas, you get all sorts of dysfunctions (for more see Deming and John Seddon’s works).

  2. My reaction to this story was like a see-saw. At the first mention of Taylor my stomach sank; we all know where this goes.

    Then the company talked about using these metrics as a way to guide improvement (after all, they do have training to help staff), and that’s admirable. Nothing wrong with trying to help people develop skills to do their jobs better. Toyota helps line workers learn to do their jobs better all the time.

    But when I got to the cashier workarounds, it became clear that there’s a real problem: the store is trying to cut costs rather than avoid them, and there’s little to no focus on the customer. What does the customer want? That should be the real question.

    I’d argue that if they created a “fast lane” for people who hated waiting and a regular lane for people who liked talking to their cashiers, they could create a retail environment that would entice consumers to come to their stores — and then they wouldn’t have to measure the number of seconds it takes to scan a barcode.

    LAME, anyone?

  3. Most definitely LAME!

    To piggy-back on what Dan said, it is admirable to use data to guide some of the improvement ideas (the banana and bakery examples) to trim costs where appropriate.

    However, just as with Ann Taylor, trying to apply labor “standards” to the front-line employees interacting directly with customers is absolutely ludicrous! There is so much soft side interaction in that encounter that truly adds value to the customer experience, but by very definition cannot be quantified.

    How can you put a value on the extra 10 seconds it took a cashier to listen to an elderly lady proudly tell about her grandson…and a Meijer employee genuinely listening…so much so that granny tells everyone she meets for the next month about how great of a shopping experience it is to go to Meijer? Contrast that to the sterile experience we’re used to getting at every typical store…and all the sudden the line is blurred between Big Box A and Big Box B and there is no competitive advantage.

    There’s nothing wrong with utilizing standards to improve efficiency. It’s rather LAME to use standards to try to dictate the emotional experiences that guide so much of what directs a person to choose Store A over Store B.

    Also, Dan’s argument about a “fast lane” is spot on.

    Finally…how about paying your managers to do what they are supposed to do…which is to get out on the damned floor and see which cashiers are both efficient and add to the customer experience and which are not? Not to hard to manage, really…

  4. About your comment ‘Industrial Engineers gone bad’, I’m in Canada and graduated from Industrial Engineering less than 10 years ago. There was no mention of Lean in any of my courses. Taylor was considered a god and we were all expected to follow his example. Does anyone know if the curriculum has changed and Lean principles are being taught in Engineering schools? I’m hoping things have changed.

  5. Jo-Anne: good question. I graduated as an IE in 1995 and was taught about Lean, at least at a surfacey “it’s better than MRP” level (“Factory Physics” was our textbook, an outstanding text).

    Lean principles are being taught more frequently, thankfully. But where it really needs to be taught is our MBA programs, to counter the Taylorism and financial focus that’s emphasized there.

  6. Long comment warning!

    I used to work at consulting practice that worked for major grocery chain in Finland (800+ stores). We used time studies in stores (they were previousuly used extensively only in logistics) to identify ‘Best Practices’ from pilot group of 40 stores.

    What we found was that there were huge cost avoidance potential in in-store logistics, ie. the way goods get from loading dock to store shelf. Far greater than could be achivied by speeding up cashiers. Maybe the largest gains could be achieved by learning to stock correct amount of each product and to order in optimal amounts. It was only matter of simple rules for deciding quantities on shelf based on real consumption at given store, instead of average demand over several stores. Better ordering would also lead to efficiency gains at distribution center.

    Previously there was no clear relation between shelf space, delivery size and order amounts. New method made for example stocking more efficient, when deliveries started arriving more closely to complete stockout. It is a lot easier to put new goods to shelf when it is almost out of products (or in ideal case last item was just taken by customer) than it is when worker must first remove existing stock to be able to put resupply behind them (to maintain FIFO).

    Individual workers were not measured, allthough data was collected by person it was analyzed on store basis. Data was measured by product group (meat, dairy, dry goods, etc..) and measurement unit was minutes / 1000 units sold.

    In my current job we also use time-studies and I recently completed course on the subject. As one cannot take clock to production if one is not trained by union accepted entity. I am certain that there is need for time information in production, especially when used as a tool in method improvement. And when determining production speed that can be reasonably expected from properly instructed and trained people. Alltough, the way time-studies have been used in here in the past has been a bit too ‘beat the worker’ oriented I am certain that they have their place in this company in the the future as well. And my goal is to us them in more people friendly manner.

    One nice example is a worker who asked if I could do time-study on her job as she felt that there was a lot of time wasted in it but she wasn’t able to put her finger on it and point it out nor tell the amount of time wasted.

    And last thing. I absolutely hate slow cashiers and I have come to find that speediest also do less mistakes as they know their job better. And this is also a feeling that my girlfriend shares after working several years as cashier.

    Again, sorry for long comment.

  7. Hi Mark,

    I worked at WalMart when they implemented their ‘rings per minute’ program. You’d login to a register and ring up merchandise. WalMart wanted you to process at a rate of 25 rings per minute or so. They’d award the cashiers with the highest rings per minute averages – a contest of sorts.

    Being an Industrial Engineering student at the time, I figured out that if you sign out as soon as you finish the transaction, the clock would stop. And I would also take my time to arrange merchandise on the belt before signing in to optimize my batch of rings. So I was proud one month to show up with an average of 86 rings per minute!

    Point is that if you setup a measurement system, people will figure out how to game it. Just like it’s easier in our culture to focus on results than the process, it’s easier for a company to engage in Taylorism and fear tactics instead of figuring out how to engage their employees in the process.

  8. Mark, I am a cashier at on of the Detroit Metro stores. I took your article to work today and it was a hit! We want to get in touch with you, as we have a lot more inside information on whats going on. We have a Union, UFCW, believe it or not, and 90 people got fired for this last year. (storewide). Thanks for saying what we feel!

    • Mark, I have to comment on your post because I have worked at Meijer for 36 years. I have also been a union Steward for UFCW 15 plus years. The standards or the direction Meijer tries to push is nothing that they can hold any one to because of your union contract. As with all jobs you are getting paid to work, and working does not mean talking to your neighboring cashier or standing around when your cashier next to you is ringing up all the customers. There are always people that work harder and others that don’t think they need to. Standards are in place to help balance the load. The company has a right to retrain those that can’t figure out the work around. Meijer spends much of their training to benefit the customer. I have stayed at Meijer so long because they truly care about their customers. This is helpful to customers also. No one wants to stand in a line at the Grocery store. In all the years I was a cashier, and a Steward I only knew one person that got fired because she was too slow. She sued Meijer and won. I’ve never seen anyone else lose their job for this reason, so I’m sorry but I need to correct your statement of all of those people getting fired. UFCW takes a strong stance on this issue. Please don’t post things that your not sure if they are correct. It’s not just bad for Meijer, but very bad for the union that gives you representation for issues just like this. Thank you

      • Thanks for your comment and perspective, Darla. This was a blog post from 15 years ago. I wonder how things have evolved.

        I’m glad to hear that workers from protections. It was the Wall Street Journal that reported workers could be fired for working too slowly. So I didn’t just make that up.

        I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed working for Meijer.


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