James Governor's Monkchips

On Sour Milk, Simple Systems, and taking Responsibility

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Adrian Trenholm keeps buying “fresh” milk from Sainsbury which turns out to be sour. How can that be, in this age of pasteurisation, refrigeration, supply chain optimisation, barcodes and sell-by dates?

He tells the story in in the UK retail blog, 173 Drury Lane.

It turns out the problem is not so isolated, but here is a Sainsbury spokesperson:

“It’s extremely rare for something like this to occur. The store sells 120,000 fresh products a week and we have elaborate systems in place for checking that all our products are well within the label dates and that out-dated stock is cleared from our stores every day.”

Adrian then hits on a great point:

Why does Sainsbury have an “elaborate system” where surely a simple system would suffice?

I love that. The argument (or recieved wisdom) that elaborate means better is nonsense.

In IT we hear it about things like PHP all the time. Oh no – what you really want is a more scalable system (in enterprise software that invariably means a more elaborate one). Sometimes however there is an argument for lesscode, less software.

Elaboration tend to mask and degare responsibility because you can blame the system if something goes wrong. [We’ll see a lot of that in the next couple of months].

Adrian ends:

I told a member of staff last week that the chicken I wanted to buy was past its sell by date, he replied “you need to speak to Customer Services about that” before going about his business. The chicken, it seems, was in someone else’s section.

Ah yes- finger pointing. You need to jump on that other process. Another part of the elaborate system will sort solve your customer problem.  

What is really needed though in many cases is less code, less complex systems, and more individual accountability. That way software will be more effective, milk won’t be curdled and more lives will be saved.


  1. A system (any system) should be as simple as it can but, NO MORE. When looking from far, all systems are simple and easy. It’s just that when you actually start accounting for all the things you have to cover, that the things get complex.
    I don’t know about that particular store but, the system some hipermarkets here have in place to place and move the products around on the shelvs is pretty complex and, it’s simplified to the maximum.
    In this case, the system isn’t working and, that is another problem but, I can assure you that ALL of this systems have to bo complex.

  2. What you very clever people seem to forget that in this age of ‘its not my fault’ Sainsburys can prove due diligence if taken to court. If they have a system in place whether it be elaborate or not I would suggest that there has to be technology involved.There are over 450 stores and millions of products, and it must be quite complex for that reason alone just to cope with the day to day routines.
    It is still down to the individual to do the job properly, and it is ultimately the human aspect that is the reason why these very occasional mistakes happen.
    However I might have misread your comments, I am after all a person who works in that supermarket and is probably not intelligent enough to understand the complexities of your one sided discussion

  3. hello penny. great to get your feedback.

    it was certainly not my intent to insult you specifically or sainsbury employees generally.

    the ace thing is its now not a one sided conversation, its two-way. the power of blogs.

    also i should say in some ways this post was not about sainbury but about complexity in general.

    your compliance point shows that you understand very well how systems processes and people interlock.

    its not my intention to throw out blanket insults. on the contrary – Sainsbury is my favorite of the major UK retailers, which is the reason i contribute to the 173 Drury Lane blog, which is all about Sainbury.


    I know the 173 team would be very appreciative if you be willing to make some comments on that blog, begin a dialogue with us….

    dialogue is a good thing. i really dont like one sided conversations. they are by nature boring.

  4. Hi Penny,

    Regarding one sided discussion: from the beginning 173 has always been a place we hoped that Sainsbury’s staff would visit. In the words of Johnnie Moore:

    “we wanted to avoid the usual mistake of smugly coming up with miracle solutions for problems. And the last thing Sainsbury’s needs right now is another bunch of experts complacently telling them what to do.

    Instead, we thought it would be more fun, and more productive, to host a discussion about how Sainsbury’s could do better.

    What we’re aiming for here is constructive debate. We welcome heartfelt criticism as well as praise, with the intention of pointing to some more positive futures for Sainsbury’s.

    So, whatever your relationship to Sainsbury’s – shopper, investor, employee, director, shareholder or competitor – you’re invited to join the discussion.”

    And to dispel any doubt about how we feel about Sainsbury’s staff, this is how I responded to a recent comment on 173:

    “I totally agree that most Sainsbury’s employees – part or full time, school leaver or retiree – do care about their customers and many too are interested in the food they sell…

    What I would like to see is these people given the opportunity to really thrive. I would like Sainsbury’s managers to empower these people – ie give them the ability and authority to serve customers – and give them simple systems, which help rather than hinder them in their jobs. Most of our posts [on 173] referring to staff follow a similar theme.”

    A Penny has already commented at 173 Drury Lane – was that the same Penny? I do hope so.

  5. If it was that simple then the retailers would be doing it. The fact is that retail supply chain – which is where all the money goes – is incredibly complex. Lots of reasons why.

    Maybe if they actually started with customer needs and wants then it could be simplified….

  6. I love sainsburys i think you should stop being nasty about it

  7. i like sainsbury too. its not a question of being nasty – just encouraging better behaviour

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