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Business Leadership Insights from Walmart’s CIO

Event Highlight

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PMI Toronto has introduced a new online event that will spark interest to many Canadian project managers. The Speaker Engagement Advisory Committee has been working to bring an exciting new series—Canadian Online Event (CoE)—that explores the best-in-class projects executed within Canada. This series will cover new and diverse topic areas at each session and feature a dynamic and innovative industry leader. The goal? To energize and inspire Chapter members and guests. 

Our first of the series kicked off in early December with a virtual Fireside Chat with the CIO of Walmart, Nicolai Salcedo. Hosted and moderated by Committee Lead, Karthik Srinivasan who explored different areas and tapping into many aspects of project management leadership with the evening’s guest.

Introducing Our CoE Guest 

Nicolai Salcedo is the Chief Information Officer for Walmart Canada. Nicolai is responsible for driving the company’s digital transformation, which includes the delivery of technology across the entire Canadian business (stores, pharmacies, and supply chains), as well as the implementation of digital strategy for e-commerce and marketplace.

Nicolai has over 20 years of experience working in the IT sector across multiple industries. Prior to Walmart, he was SVP and Head of IT for Mattamy Corporation. His early career included stops as a VP of Global IT Strategy and Global PMO with Delphix and Aimia and 14 years with Procter and Gamble in various roles and geographies.

Nicolai has also been a board member for the Project Management Institute (PMI) Toronto Chapter and for the CIO Canada Association.

Fireside Chat Recap

The evening had many highlights and engaging conversations. Here are some of the highlights from the evening’s discussion. (Responses edited for length and clarity).

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Karthik Srinivasan (KS): A top-of-mind question many people have had since the start of the pandemic is around resilience. How do we make our customers, systems, and businesses more resilient?

 

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Nicolai Salcedo (NS): The pandemic hit everyone strong and fast. In December 2019 it was "something in China" then quickly became a global pandemic by March 2020. At Walmart, we had a first pandemic phase of urgent agenda. Our primary job was to keep operations running, stores open, and above all keep our customers and associates safe.

 

As the CIO of technology, challenges in those early days were, for example, converting to a work-from-home environment for over 2,000 office personnel. Then we had to follow provincial and federal rules regarding store capacity—we added staff to count customers coming into our stores—all with different limits/rules across provinces. Next, we had to navigate the panic-buying of items like toilet paper and other products.  

Later, we moved to a sustainable phase. Customers and associates were trying to avoid going into our stores, so we decided to maximize our online grocery fulfilment to serve more Canadians. On average we have one million customers per day in-stores across Canada. Pre-pandemic only 250 stores managed online orders and at the beginning of 2020, we had planned to add 70 more stores that year.

As the pandemic continued, we fast-tracked and managed to launch e-commerce in 63 stores in just one month. With strong leadership support, an attitude of asking “What do you need?” throughout the project, building a “cookie-cutter” approach and working to deploy new systems overnight were key. We had a purpose; we worked with a sense of duty to serve our customers. 

To make things happen quickly, we also looked outside at available technology. For instance, we used AI and Machine Learning to automate substitutions for customers placing online orders (when we were out of stock) so that the website would suggest replacements. For the staff fulfilling orders in-store, we provided more totes for orders, we deployed sticker printers and price scanners (over 17,000 devices!) and we automated the picking route. Order efficiency grew 4x vs previous capacity, and we grew in one year beyond our five-year plan for business growth.

KS: Thanks Nicolai. To sum up I would say your response is “profit is the reward society gives your business for good work” and “resilience comes from a sense of duty.” What motivated your people to work beyond their sense of duty and achieve that 63-store deployment in one month instead of one year?

NS: I could respond in 2 ways: Art and Science. 

  1. When teams are focused on a few but big goals, they become an unstoppable team—like an army.
  2. My goal as a leader is not to tell them what to do, it's to find the biggest and best talent in the market and ensure that they think differently than me.
  3. Power of collective wisdom will create a great answer.
  4. People believe in the answer if we are part of it. Avoid the idea of “because the boss said so.” Understand how it comes together at the end of the line.

In summation, a sense of purpose is where the magic happens.

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KS: Looking forward, from your perspective, tell us what the emerging trends are for project management in the future. What does the Next-GEN project manager need?

NS: In retail, including our customers, everyone is using a smartphone these days. After baby boomers, most generations are digital-native. They expect to do everything online or at least have a digital channel in the store. Even in-store people use their smartphone to self-scan and walk out. We must cater to all types of customers—digital, in-store, and the mix in the middle.

Recently agile was the buzzword and waterfall became less popular. But waterfall works (e.g., store renovation, building a bridge, etc.). The project plan or approach exists and is well understood. It doesn't need to start from a blank page every time. 

But for digital development, such as UX, at Walmart we use agile. I had both teams working separately in the past, but now they work and learn from each other! Our business is understanding that they need to become more agile to improve. In conclusion, "Change your ways of working." Some people may say “If it worked for 20yrs, why should I change now?” Because it can be better!

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KS: So, building on the idea of agile and leadership, what do you think about the phrase “fail fast and learn from it?” Do you apply this notion at Walmart?

NS: We say it a lot; fail fast and fail cheap!

While there is an expectation to try, it must not be just for the sake of trying everything, but with a purpose. We must first understand what the problem is we have to solve, then we can think about what technology is needed to solve it.

Did you know that Walmart has the world's largest transportation blockchain? Or that we are testing delivery drones? We want to correlate the data and behaviour in the stores for better product flows, how to automate backrooms, what robotics we can use for cleaning or in future FCs for picking orders.

We always start with testing, then assess against the value proposition, and then decide “do we need this?” As an example, we used robots—during a trial—that scan and check our aisles for product shortages and they can alert associates to start re-stocking. This frees up associates for more time to work with customers. 

Innovation without profit is just art. We want to test and if successful, scale it up. Walmart has scale. If we say ‘devices,’ we are talking about thousands of units! Annually we sell $26 billion of products. We ship 950 million cases/yr. Our supply chain does 65,000 deliveries to stores per year. That’s large scale!



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KS: At the start of the pandemic, we saw shortages in basic supplies like toilet paper, sanitizer, and medical supplies. How did Walmart manage?

NS: Our merchandisers had data and were reporting to us what was happening. We avoided abuse. We knew that on our marketplace (where we have other sellers on our platform) we would see price gouging. Overnight we implemented systems to limit price changes (e.g., stay within +/-25% in one day). We knew what each household was going through.

But we didn’t have a crystal ball. As an example, on a store visit in February 2020, I asked a store manager what three product categories would you drop? His response was

  1. DVDs—not many sales and too much inventory ($400 million)
  2. Yarn, crafts, etc.
  3. Small power tools (e.g. circular saw, drill, etc.) 

These product lines were typically not selling and carried large inventories. But by March 2020 DVDs and board games were sold out. Home entertainment exploded. Then it happened with the yarn and crafts and so on.

All families are going through the same process. Across the pandemic our merchandisers were proactive about planning ahead of the seasons, thinking “what are people going to do next?” We increased buying a week ahead and tried to purchase in bulk. We bought from places we would never have before such as Pier 1 when they closed stores. 

All our decisions were based on data. We powered up our data analytics and targeted all the growth areas we thought might come. In the end, we bought too much sanitizer!

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KS: We've all gone through the pandemic with many different opportunities and thoughts. After the pandemic, there is a “great resignation” impacting all companies. What are you and Walmart doing to manage that?

NS: We accept when people say, “I can't work here.” We have front-line workers—nearly 98,000 FT, PT, contract employees. Every household is different. We can't be one-size-fits all. Many families/associates are maybe three-generation families, gaining above minimum wage, and getting everyone sick. We can't fix that. Our jobs often required people to be in the store. 

When you saw Covid being concentrated in city pockets, it was often where services/cleaning/retail employees came from. These people were risking exposure to support the rest of us. We committed to do everything to keep them safe. Clean frequently, reduce contact and provide safety measures. 

Another aspect was being classified as “essential.” Many competitors (e.g., Canadian Tire) didn't get qualified as essential to remain open, so we also found that large numbers of people wanted to join us. 

We had to create the best possible and safest work environment. And always respect those people who chose to leave.

By now, many people have found their new way of working, and many companies are doing things differently. Flexibility is more common now. Different compelling propositions now are available in different companies. We performed well in the pandemic so our staff are getting poached for great offers that we can't match. I can't hold someone back. My advice is to take those great offers. I can't prevent competition!

We have to offer a proposition; on top of compensation, provide a purpose and a job that you like to do. Remember, you don’t leave a company, you leave a leader or an environment.

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Karthik ended the evening on a more personal question since is something many of us struggle with, even those who now work from home. 

KS: How do you achieve work-life balance? As a CIO, with family, acting on multiple boards…. What is your mantra?

NS: I learned in my Procter & Gamble days the importance of time management. The famous story about filling a jar with stones and rocks and sand?

The big rocks must go first, or they don't fit. What are your “big rocks?” For me, family is first.

Also, time is money so your calendar is your bank. How will you spend/invest your time? I work hard but always put family first. 

Before the pandemic, I woke up early to exercise, prepared everybody’s breakfast, went to work (and worked hard!) but then my assistant would kick me out of the office on time so I can pick up my kids from school, have family dinners and family time. I could work after all that, if necessary. I also counted on my wife to support me when events/travel happened. It’s a balance. 

I actively make choices. Do you work to live or live to work? 

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More Canadian Online Events

Don’t miss out on these Canadian Online Events. Visit our website’s Event page or follow us on social media to stay informed for upcoming sessions. 

On Thursday, January 6th, our next CoE will host Kristian Gravelle, a former executive of AstraZeneca and current VP of Marketing for Adastra, to discuss “Data Democratization Transformation Program within a Pharma Company”. With all the news of the Covid vaccine development and AstraZeneca’s active role in keeping us all safe over the last two years, you won’t want to miss it! Register today!

 

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