Sep 252012

What is the problem?

A Kowalski’s vendor was having trouble keeping up with orders. Kowalski’s was experiencing frequent out of stocks, mislabeled product, and poor communications. Out of stocks lead to unhappy customers and, in the long run, lack of sales and sustainability for our company. Improper labeling could bring heavy fines from the FDA.

Kowalski’s leaders knew that lack of accountability was a problem in this case and that it is a problem in the larger society. It is often solved through litigation. The outcome not only drives up costs for everyone but also contributes to polarization and the inability to work together to find sustainable solutions to problems.

What we were trying to achieve

We were looking for a solution that would allow us to maintain our relationship with the vendor, would benefit both parties, and would be sustainable for the long term. We planned to use this situation as a way to practice what it means to be a civic business, (see Kowalski’s identity statement). That meant we needed to use our identity statement to explain that in a civic business we each take on the identity of an active citizen and, in that role, we are each a policymaker. Our day-to-day decisions have an impact on others and the larger public good. With that in mind, we approached the problem with our vendor in this light: What policies could we put in place that would help to solve this particular problem and also further the public good?

What we did to achieve our purpose

We used a civic organizing approach to create a systemic solution to the problem. We took the following steps:

  • We started with a power analysis—an analysis of the current state, the ideal state, and what we need to do to move towards the ideal. We were certain to include an analysis of how this particular problem related to the bigger problem and to achieving the common good. All grocery managers participated in the analysis.
  • From our findings in the power analysis, we created an agenda for a meeting that would include all of the key stakeholders, both from Kowalski’s and the vendor’s organization.
  • At the meeting, Kowalski’s leaders started by explaining that they are a civic business and what that means. We said something like this:

“Kowalski’s is a ‘civic business’ and that means that we always have our ‘active citizen’ hat on. An active citizen is a policymaker and acts in that role as he or she goes about day-to-day activities. We think that the particular problem we are addressing today is related to a similar problem in the larger world. Our belief is that if we function as active citizens in our situation, we will not only come up with a better solution to our particular problem but will also be helping to provide a new way to solve problems that reflects how we should work together in a democracy.

Kowalski’s participants used political skills such as open-ended questions, suspending judgment, and clarifying both parties’ expectations. Each party expressed their self-interests in solving the problem. The participants worked to find solutions to the particular problem and by the end of the meeting evaluated how the experience related to the need for active citizenship in the larger world.


Both parties agreed to these steps to address the problem:

  • The vendor will notify Kowalski’s of the schedule for when new packaging will arrive and will emailed Kowalski’s when all items are available for Kowalski’s to order.
  • Kowalski’s will name a single contact for the vendor to use in placing orders and addressing issues.
  • The Vendor agrees to ensure that holiday items arrive in Kowalski’s stores at least 6 weeks in advance. Anything less than 4 weeks will result in a cancellation of order.
  • A Kowalski’s employee will walk through the proper labeling procedure for Kowalski’s products with the vendor’s production manager. All future orders will be labeled correctly.
  • All future items on Kowalski’s orders will have thicker gauge bags to assure highest quality.

The parties agreed to hold each other accountable to achieve the agreed upon goals. By being open and transparent, Kowalski’s and the vendor were able to find mutually beneficial strategies. We linked the experience of problem solving and decision making to being an active citizen and to a new approach to policy making which we call civic policy making.

One month has passed and the agreements have been upheld.

The solution also helped to advance several of Kowalski’s overall work plan strategies that help it live up to its identity as a civic business. It provided an opportunity for Kowalski’s leaders to learn more about political skills by using them to solve a real problem. It demonstrated the effectiveness of using a civic organizing approach to solve problems and it furthered the civic organizing approach and engaged a vendor organization in using it.

Mark Olmstead is Assistant Store Manager/Grocery Manager at Kowalski’s Market, Oak Park Heights, MN.