Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s efforts have been publicized in a number of business and financial periodicals—the latest installment of this turnaround saga appeared in a recent issue of BusinessWeek. A multi-page article detailed a number of initiatives to improve operational efficiencies, analyze customer traffic, and begin a first-ever advertising campaign. What struck me was how Schultz had always managed the business by instinct, did not care that much about costs and always admired out-of-the-box thinking. Now that Starbucks has hit a rough spot in sales and profitability, Schultz has been forced to turn his attention to fix-the-box thinking.  “It’s always a fragile balance between creativity and discipline,” he says, “but it’s much more acute than it was in the past.”

This quote from Schultz seems to imply that creativity and discipline are either mutually exclusive—or at least opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s right-brain versus left-brain thinking. It’s the marketing department versus the accounting department. To me, this trade-off between creativity and discipline is not the real issue. I believe the real distinction is between “What to do” and “How to do it.”

What to do

For a multi-unit retail business, “what to do” means creating a value proposition that links customers to the business. It took incredible creativity to be able to develop the Starbucks concept and roll it out 15,000 times.

Your multi-unit business has to have a strong value proposition and bond with core customers. That value proposition consists of many elements including price, product offerings, quality, service and location. It’s the “what to do” of your concept, and it must be protected.

How to do it

Underneath the “what to do” umbrella is “how to do it”—the single-minded discipline to execute each element of the value proposition as efficiently and effectively as possible every day with every customer in every location. “How to do it” is the foundation that supports “what to do.” It is thinking inside the box (or under the umbrella) with operating policies and procedures that assure customers they always will receive that great value proposition. Certainly there must be structure and discipline in these practices, and operators dedicate much of their careers to ensure their companies conduct business in the most effective way possible. Far from being dull and boring, effective and efficient operations allow the company to be more creative in meeting customer needs and improving the customer value proposition.

Take Wal-Mart, for example. Underneath the umbrella of “what to do” is an army of hard-working, smart operators who attack operational efficiency like Sherman marching through Georgia. This almost maniacal dedication to operations has allowed the brand to evolve from the original retail stores to supercenters with huge grocery departments to Sam’s Club to international dominance.

Another example: Tiger Woods is a golfer. It is his “what to do” and he is the best in the world at it. His daily grind of workouts, practice and playing starts early and finishes late. He is the most creative shot maker in golf. I bet Tiger would say his daily work is actually liberating as it gives him the confidence to be creative when he tees up in a tournament.

It’s a tough economy for retail, where innovation and growth are low. Right now, it is all about “how to do it.” Work on fixing operations. It takes hard work, discipline and yes, creativity to execute your value proposition without fail. When everyone masters the disciplines of your business, it will bring surprising freedom.

Gene Baldwin is a partner in CRG Partners Group, a national turnaround consultancy. He can be reached at 316-371-2908 or gene.baldwin@crgpartners.com.