Everyday Lean (or Not): Whole Foods and an Herbal Near Miss


Saturday morning, as part of my preparation to cook for a brunch gathering (I really enjoy cooking as a hobby, for those who don't know me), I took a trip to a Boston Whole Foods location.

One ingredient I needed for a fruit salad was some fresh mint. I saw a display in the produce area with a “Fresh Mint” sign, so I grabbed the herbal-looking green stuff that was in the tray. As I was being checked out at the register, the cashier asked me what was in the bad. “Oh, that's mint,” I said. I got a quizzical look… the cashier said, “This is water… water-something right?”

It was indeed watercress, upon closer inspection. I clearly know the difference between mint and watercress, yet I had made a shopping error. The cashier's role wasn't “final inspection” since she didn't know what I intended to buy. It was her confusion over a somewhat obscure type of leaf that led to my own closer inspection. Problem averted… but read on.

The cashier charged me for mint and told me I could go get one on the way out. I told her the sign on the display said “mint” and she then said:

“You're not the only one to make that mistake today.”

Clearly, I screwed up. Without a sign, I could have searched through a display with lots of different herbs and could have easily picked out mint, by sight, yet alone smell. But since it was a special case with a single sign (see below), I trusted the sign. I saw a sign and my thinking shut off, apparently.

Now, what was of interest to me was the lack of root cause problem solving. Maybe the cashier WAS having to inspect all things green and leafy to see if the mint/watercress error was occurring. Were other cashiers aware of this problem?

Better yet, why wasn't there a root cause response to FIX the sign or the display? In a Lean setting, the cashier would be able to pull some sort of “andon cord” – signaling a problem. This could be, as in supermarkets, a light that they turn on or an announcement over the P.A.

A supervisor would come and ask what the problem is. The cashier, being busy ringing up customers, could tell the supervisor that there are mislabeled herbs. The supervisor would have the freedom to go help get the problem solved, by walking over and talking to someone in produce.

The supervisor could follow two levels of problem solving:

First order: Remove the sign, fix the sign, move the watercress — either way, make sure the labeling is accurate

Second order: Why was the stand mislabeled in the first place? That discussion shouldn't be a “blame game,” but a real discussion involving the people who were involved.

Maybe the person putting out the signs doesn't know herbs and leaves that well (training issue) or they were rushed and simply made a human error — as I did.

The two key questions:

  • How did this happen?
  • What can we do to prevent it from happening again.

Or, the customers and I can just “be more careful.” In the world of my new blog, the store would hang a sign that says something like “Warning! Confirm herbs and vegetables are correct as you place them into cart!”

The worst response would be the “no response.” How many customers got all the way home before they realized the had the wrong green stuff?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleLife Without Tap Water in Boston – New Standardized Work
Next article“Lean Doctors” – A New Book and Webinar
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. So simple to act but yet not encouraged. It is said that people chose to deal with the mistake rather than try to correct or even prevent it. Looks like they need some management involvement. The real question is will you continue to go to this establishment or look for a better service. What will motivate the store managers to change mindset?
    .-= Tim McMahon ´s last blog ..Leadership: The Power of Influence =-.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.