Timpson: shifting/transforming culture through ‘language and practices’

Why did John Timpson commit to making this shift in culture?

This is what he says:

“I am embarrassed that it took me 22 years as a Chief Executive before I found the secret behind good personal customer service.  But i’s true.  I didn’t discover Upside Down Management until I met Ian Siddall at UBS……  I learned that we faced a new threat, a competitor with more money than I could possibly imagine, who was well placed to inflict major damage to our business.  He could have opened shops next door, bribed our best people to jump ship and undercut our prices.  To survive we had to be good at shoe repairing and key cutting, engraving and watch repairs and be great at looking after our customers.”

What are the  fundamental principles behind Upside Down Management?

There are five fundamental principles:

  1. All colleagues have the freedom to do their jobs they way they choose;
  2. Every boss’s job it to help his or her team;
  3. No KPI’s, no boxes to tick;
  4. Bosses don’t issue orders;
  5. Head Office is a helpline – it does not run the day to day business.

What does it take to make this shift in culture?

I suspect that some of you are confronted by this.  Upside Down Management is not just some change from ‘business as usual’ (command and control management), it is transformation – a genuine one akin to that of the caterpillar and the butterfly.  What does it take to make this shift?  Is it a question of technique or implementing a new information technology?  No, it requires an existential quality – courage.  Here is how John Timpson puts it:

Upside Down Management isn’t for wimps, it’s for managers with the courage to give people their freedom……….. It took me 10 years to ingrain this way of working into our culture.  My deepest thinking colleagues realise that this is never ending project…….’We always live on a tightrope – it wouldn’t take long for the magic dust to disappear‘”

How easy was it get the people in the organisation to step up, embrace, live into/from Upside Down Management? Here is what John Timpson says about that:

“I put an upside down chart on the front of our weekly newsletter and wrote a letter to everyone explaining my new philosophy, but nothing changed…..  What I proposed was so contrary to the way a normal business is managed that they simply didn’t trust me.  I discovered that lots of people like rules; they don’t want the freedom to make up their own mind.  The rules give a degree of comfort, providing something to complain about and something or someone else to blame.” 

And here is a revelation about the role of the middle managers in any culture shift:

One of our biggest challenges is to get area teams to treat their people the way we want………  It was only when I spent a day out with one of the most experienced that I understood why they seemed to be so uncooperative…… Then he revealed the real problem.  ‘Apart from anything else,’ he said, ‘if I let my assistants do my job, what will be left for me to do?’  That comment made me realise my mistake.  I had changed the job of an area manager but I hadn’t described what their new job was or how to do it.”

Shifting the culture through language and practices

I say that shifts in organisation culture occur through the heartfelt and persistent shift in the language and practices of the CEO and the Tops.  When I use the term ‘language’ I mean more than speech, with ‘language’ I am pointing at everything about the CEO that speaks to people who come into contact with the CEO.  If the CEO comes into meetings late that speaks to people.  If the CEO dominates talk and shoots down anyone that disagrees with him then that speaks to people.   Allow me to give you an example, back in the 90s Ernst&Young got a new ‘CEO’ and he asked partners to ‘give up their offices’ as they took up a lot of space and were rarely used.  Nothing changed.  Then the new ‘CEO’ gave up his office, this spoke to some partners and they followed in his tracks, and then more followed.

So what did John Timpson do to get the people in the Timpson shops to get that he was serious about Upside Down Management?  Through language that spoke powerfully to everyone – the customers, the staff in the shops, the area managers.  Here is how he puts it:

After a time I realised that just telling people that they’ve got the freedom to act was not good enough.  I had to give them examples of what that freedom meant, so I stuck a notice up in every branch:”

I want to draw your attention to a feature that is so important and you might miss.  John Timpson, the CEO, went in person to each of the retail shops and stuck that notice up in every one of them.  He did not delegate to anyone else.  He didn’t just visit one shop – he visited every single shop.  This is powerful language, I say the most powerful language.  It says this is mine, I own this, it matters to me, I mean it, I trust you, I take responsibility.   It occurs to me that here you have an act of leadership and an existential commitment that is in the same vein as the American Declaration of Independence signed by the founding fathers of the USA.

Now onto practices,  these are not exhaustive and yet should give you a good insight as to what I am pointing at when I say that the access for shifting culture is to shift ‘language and practices’:

Notice, the change in ‘language’ around the Head Office.  The most obvious example is the change in name from Head Office to Timpson House.  The less obvious is the fact that no-one is allowed to use the term Head Office.   And that is accompanied by practices that do genuinely take away Head Office.  Put differently, a Head Office that does not have the right/authority to issue edicts and expect compliance is no longer a Head Office.  Which is my way of saying that the ‘language’ and ‘practices’ have to complement one another to be effective in shifting culture.  Finally, notice how the practices tie up as a whole under an overarching philosophy around doing business.  The philosophy guides the language and practices and in turn the language and practices give life to the philosophy – a virtuous circle.

For those of you grappling with culture and culture change, you might want to read the two earlier posts I wrote on culture change:

Culture change: what does it take to change culture in business? In banking?

‘Collaborative customer-centric’ culture: what does it take to make the shift?

This post concludes this mini-series on culture and culture change.  I hope that you have found at least some of it disturbing / thought provoking.  Last tip/POV – most of the stuff out there on culture change is mistaken and not useful, it really isn’t because it works from a mistaken view of human beings. If you want a more useful access to people and culture then contact me I can point you in more useful directions.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

3 thoughts on “Timpson: shifting/transforming culture through ‘language and practices’”

  1. Hi Maz,
    Thanks for the summary. My copy just arrived yesterday and I am looking forward to a great read. I’ll try and remember to come back and share my thoughts once done.

    Adrian

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  2. Fascinating article Maz, I guess the real problem is one of fear, how on earth can a manager manage without reams of KPI’s and meetings coming out of their ears?

    It would be a very long and tortuous process for most managers to understand the difference. I like to think I am “enlightened” but I am not sure I could carry it off any more than the next man

    James

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    1. HEllo James
      I value your honesty. John Timpson has been successful because he was able to transcend is fear through external pressure and internal commitment. Most of us lack that especially when we work in organisations that fundamentally about command and control.

      Maz

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