This is about shoes (sort of) – but fashionistas needn’t get excited.

Tomas Bata

It’s about a man born in 1876 in Zlin in what was Austro-Hungary at the time whose family were shoemakers – Tomas Bata.

In 1894 he started a company to produce shoes on a more modern basis than the old craft of the traditional cobbler. The company still exists as the Bata Shoe Organization, headquartered in Toronto, and does business in five continents.

I first became aware of Bata Shoes when I lived in pre-independence Singapore.  Strange that a mere lad should remember that but they had very clean, modern (for their time) shops and my parents were certainly aware of them from their earlier lives in the UK.

Fast forward many years and it’s only a relatively short time ago that I became conscious of Tomas Bata for another reason.  In an earlier blog on Some Random Quotes I listed one of his sayings:

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money

It was an intriguing quote to stumble across at random and led me to hunt around to find out more.

It turned out that Bata was a pioneer in many things, for example

  • customer focus – he said “the customer is our master”
  • control of the supply chain to ensure quality and efficiency (at one stage Bata not only owned its shoe shops but controlled the source of its raw materials, and made and distributed the shoes – and much more)
  • he understood what is still for many the perverse relationship between improving conditions and pay for workers in order to lower costs, and even
  • town planning – through the development of modern company towns to house his workers as well as locate his factories (there is an interesting example in East Tilbury in the UK).

Something he said to his workers is worth quoting in full:

…the chances to multiply wealth are unlimited. All people can become rich. There is an error in our understandings – that all people cannot become equally rich. Wealth can not exist where the people are busy with mutual cheating, have no time for creating values and wealth. It is remarkable that we can find the greatest number of wealthy tradesmen and a population on a high standard of living in countries with a high level of business morality. On the other hand, we can find poor tradesmen and entrepreneurs and an impoverished population in countries with a low standard of business morality. This is natural because these people concentrate on cheating one another instead of trying to create value.

We are granting you the profit share not because we feel a need to give money to the people just out of the goodness of the heart. No, we are aiming at other goals by this step. By this measure we want to reach a further decrease of production costs. We want to reach the situation that the shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more. We think that our products are still too expensive and worker’s salary too low (Zdenek Rybka: Principles of the Bata Management System)

Well, the rhetoric may seem grandiloquent now and the run of the mill shoe is an un-glamorous item we take for granted. But when Bata began his business, even in Europe many children went bare-footed.

I can think of no single UK business person who combines the qualities of the man – perhaps the 19th century Quaker confectioners, or John Spedan Lewis the founder of the eponymous John Lewis Partnership (another lesser known hero of improvement? – we shall see). But it was the combination of beliefs and actions that seem to me to make Bata unique for his era.

If I revert to my interest in lean or systems thinking for work it sometimes feels that there is a single great river where tributaries join to form one approach. Certainly there are zealots who will claim there is only one way and it is the philosophy of guru x or teacher y. Yet as Bata shows there are other separate rivers that never seem to join the mainstream.

Bata died tragically in an air crash in 1932 when he was 56.

Interestingly, one of the great modern thinkers in this whole area, Myron Tribus, who is often associated with the Deming approach, wrote a fascinating paper about Bata almost 70 years later in 2001 – Tribus on Bata. Well worth study and explains Bata’s significance much better than I can convey.