5 Ways to Learn From Target’s Latest Publicity Scandal

It seems that Target can’t catch a break. The big box retailer’s culture was the subject of public scrutiny recently when a mid-level employee from Minneapolis sent an anonymous email to e-zine Gawker lambasting it. In response, Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Jones wrote the following on his LinkedIn blog.

May 23 2014 by Colin D. Baird


“In reading this account of life at Target, I’ve gone through a range of emotions— first anger, then wondering why any team member would say what they said. And while it was difficult for me to read this account for many reasons, the reality is that our team members speaking with honesty is a gift because much of what they are saying is true. While we would have preferred to have a conversation like this with the team member directly, speaking openly and honestly, and challenging norms is exactly what we need to be doing today and every day going forward.”

While his humility may be genuine, the fact that the team member had to go online anonymously to garner attention and felt he couldn’t speak candidly otherwise is another example of what has plagued executives since the days of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan. Even when situations like these happen, executives and managers still remain highly fragile and resistant to change, often drawing incorrect conclusions that continuous improvement is not necessary. Meanwhile, fear dominates the lives of the willing workers. Here are five steps you can use to flip this type of situation around in a more positive, open-communication approach.

  1. Build an open-communication culture. In his book Anti Fragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Taylib discusses the idea that people and organizations are becoming increasingly fragile, unapproachable, untouchable and not breakable, when the exact opposite behavior is what leads to marked gains and improvement. For example, executives today spend little time at work sites to experience what employees have to do to add more value for customers. When executives don’t visit regularly, it creates both a large disconnect—and a large opportunity—between what executives know and what they need to know to innovate and improve the system.
  2. Drive out fear. Beginning the road to improvement requires first driving out fear from your organization. This allows the lines of communication to be re-opened. Target’s Mr. Jones has taken the first step—he’s made his ego anti-fragile, breakable, pliable, ready to gain from disorder, publicly I might add. He seems genuinely humbled by the entire experience and ready to improve personally. Unfortunately, it was a crisis that drove him to this conclusion. Employees must be able to test ideas in crisis or non-crisis mode collaboratively with executives and other team members. Driving out fear enables teams to balance their candor about failure with their curiosity about improvement. Once accomplished, they can also learn to treat one another’s ideas as hypotheses rather than truths to learn together, even though they have differing perspectives.
  3. Measure the right stuff. Reducing costs that drive loss has become many executive’s primary focus. However, Dr. Deming taught that executives who focus on the causes behind the costs get to the root cause of the loss. This Deming principle remains key to success at Toyota and many other organizations today.
  4. Formalize the failure process. Establish a formalized process that documents every failure, (whether human or otherwise), establish the cause behind the failures, and develop actions to remove the causes. Costs will come down as variation is reduced.
  5. Drive out old thinking and fragile egos. Worrying about what others think because of political correctness, education, positions of authority or other areas where power influences others, has led us to the brink of self- disimprovement. We are becoming largely fragile, and unwilling or unable to acknowledge our personal and professional failures. Leaders such as Deming, Dr. Taichi Ohno and Steve Jobs had egos, but by allowing their egos to be “anti fragile,” they obtained knowledge and generated benefits that others largely ignored.

If organizations are going to improve, it all starts with top management. Humility is a difficult concept for many who have done well financially, but it is a key element to improving the business. Management must learn how to set their fragile ego aside, and replace it with behavior that encourages and fosters anti-fragility in a humble, stable learning environment.

Colin Baird is a management consultant with Phoenix based LSI Consulting Group LLC. He can be reached at cbaird@lsicg.com, or 661-332-0382.