A couple months ago I was asked to give a speech to Boston area high school students in Harvard College’s Youth Leadership Program. The timing worked for me so I said yes. But as the date got closer I started worrying. This was a leadership program and I was supposed to be inspirational. But preparing a general leadership speech didn’t sound right given that I don’t teach or study leadership. Then I came across a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. made to students at a high school in Philadelphia in 1967. In his speech, King encouraged students to think about their life’s blueprint and said:
Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.
Secondly, in your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days, as the years unfold what you will do in life — what your life’s work will be. Set out to do it well.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. But be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
After reading King’s speech, I knew what I wanted to communicate to my young audience. Through examples from different supply chains, I would help them discover the importance of each and every job, from cleaning classrooms to designing computers to sewing zippers on shorts to stocking merchandise at supermarkets. Every job matters! And as King argues, in every job people can achieve dignity and excellence.
I just wish there were more of these jobs. Unfortunately, many companies do not provide jobs where people can feel good about what they do, find meaning, and strive for excellence. Let me give an example from retail, an industry that employs close to a fifth of the US workforce. In this industry, most companies choose to offer bad jobs. I want to emphasize the word “choose” here because my research shows that offering good or bad jobs is not a necessary outcome of being in this particular industry or competing on the basis of lowest prices.
So how bad are retail jobs? Let’s start with wages. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics the mean annual wage for a cashier working 40 hours in 2010 was $19,810, less than half of mean annual wage of all occupations. And working 40 hours a week is not a guarantee even for full-time employees because 94% of retailers consider anyone working more than 30 hours a full-timer. Obviously, the situation is worse for part-timers.
With these wages it is not surprising that retail employees get disproportionately more public assistance than employees in other industries. Here by the way are some depressing data about food stamps.
Beyond low wages, retailers are notorious for providing unstable work schedules. Think about a job where your work schedule changes dramatically from one week to the next and you only learn about your schedule one week in advance. How is that for managing the rest of your life, especially if you have children and depend on a second job to get by?
Low wages, unstable schedules, along with very limited training and little opportunity for advancement are not what I would include in a recipe for dignity and excellence. And lack of dignity and excellence certainly shows when we shop at these stores. We as customers are used to problems like misplaced products, disorganized shelves, obsolete products lingering on the shelves, dirty stores, and poor customer service.
The excuse retailers often make for lack of investment in labor is that this is the only way to provide the lowest prices. So if retailers offer jobs that allow for dignity and excellence customers will have to pay higher prices. I find this presumed trade-off between low prices and investment in employees a wrong one if retailers make the right operating decisions. I’ve studied highly successful retailers ranging from convenience stores to supermarkets to wholesale clubs that not only offer the lowest prices and make a lot of money, but they ensure that their employees have good jobs. And their secret sauce is operations! These retailers consistently make operating decisions that are good for employees, customers, and investors all at the same time.
So there you have it. Operations management enables what Martin Luther King preaches. We don’t have to study leadership to inspire high school students or managers; we can easily do that through studying operations management.