Amidst all the garbage repackaged as corporate visions most Brits (certainly the middle-class) could tell you instantly what the John Lewis Partnership stands for: 

Never knowingly undersold

 It’s old-fashioned – whoever uses the word undersold now? – but instantly recognisable and understandable.

And they mean it.  Take your receipt back to them with proof that you can buy the same thing cheaper elsewhere and they refund the difference.

As a brand, their reputation for quality and fair dealing is probably unrivalled across their department stores, the Waitrose supermarket chain, their Greenbee services operation and a growing online retail presence.

They’re unique – in UK retailing – in another way too.

They’re owned by the work force.

This is all thanks to John Spedan Lewis, son of the founder, who transformed the original two store business into the chain that has grown to its current £7.5 billon turnover.

Like Tomas Bata (my Lesser known hero of improvement No. 2) in very different circumstances and with different intent, Lewis made the connection between the health of the business and the health of the people who worked for it when he took charge of the Peter Jones department store in London in 1914.

 …my father’s success had been due to his trying constantly to give very good value to people who wished to exchange their money for his merchandise but it also became clear to me that the business would have grown further and that my father’s life would have been much happier if he had done the same for those who wished to exchange their work for his money.  The profit, even after ten thousand pounds had been set aside as interest at five per cent, upon the capital, was equal to the whole of the pay of the staff, of whom there were about three hundred… for very nearly all of his staff any saving worth mentioning was impossible. They were getting hardly more than a bare living (John Spedan Lewis talk on BBC radio in 1957)

or as the Partnership themselves put it now

 With the happiness of his employees firmly at the centre of his mind, he began to instigate new systems and practices…Intent on bettering the working conditions and spirit of the company, he offered shortened working days, the setting up of a staff committee, [and] a third week’s holiday paid holiday [which] was an innovation for the retail trade at this time (both quotes from the Partnership web site)

From that thinking evolved the John Lewis Partnership model of all the shares in the company held in trust for the employees.  Apart from any benefits to the owner employees (the “partners”) the model has allowed the company to expand and thrive nearly a century after Lewis first began work on his ideas.

Neither Lewis nor Tomas Bata are recognised as part of modern lean or systems thinking but from different starting points they discovered some of the profound truths that lie at the heart of those approaches.

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