Most organisations have some values written in to their mission or vision statements.  They might say they stand for excellence, innovation, integrity, inclusiveness, or outstanding customer service, just to name a few.

But without any context, these are fuzzy, abstract concepts that mean different things to different people. How does an employee know how to translate these values into actions? 

Does smiling and greeting the customer constitute outstanding customer service? Does filling a diversity quota constitute inclusiveness?

Employees need some examples to make these abstract words concrete—true stories about how these values have been enacted.

Nordstrom department stores in the United States say they are about “a relentless drive to exceed expectations” and delivering “the best possible shopping experience.” So far, that doesn’t sound any different from the values espoused by thousands of other companies.

However, Nordstrom makes it clear what it means by collecting true and surprising stories that demonstrate the level of customer service they are talking about.

There’s the one about the man who returned a set of snow tires to the Nordstrom store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Nordstrom doesn’t sell tires. The man purchased them from the store that used to occupy the same space before Nordstrom moved in. The Nordstrom employee refunded his money anyway.

Or the one about a member of the housekeeping staff at a Nordstrom store in Connecticut who found a customer’s bags, along with her receipt and flight itinerary, in the car park. He drove to the JFK International airport in New York and had the airport page her to let her know he had brought her bags to her.

These details make all the difference between empty values statements and ones that mean what they say. They also give employees the freedom to use their own judgement in turning values into actions. They act as inspiration rather than rules.

What stories make your organisation’s values clear and actionable?