In Praise of John Spedan Lewis

Posted: 03 December 2010, in Blog

The JL empire is now seen as a byword for quality and competitiveness, workplace democratic participation and a model for radical innovation in the provision of public services – but only in England and Wales or maybe in bits of Scotland in non devolved areas of public services.

Good. Innovation should be examined and discussed in the redesign of our public services. However, before the Tories keep promoting this model, maybe they should also spend some time looking at other features of John Lewis such as ownership and control, partners (employees) democratic participation, profit sharing and being independent.

Note the bit about profit sharing. JL partners want and rely on that to boost their incomes. It is part of that mix of “benefits and returns” that motivates and stimulates partner’s loyalty and belief in the norms and values of the business. Public service contracts with social enterprises don’t have retail sector levels of profit attached to them so where is the financial imperative for public sector employees to develop these new ventures. After all, public sector folk are, generally speaking, not entrepreneurs – social or otherwise.

In addition, for Trade Unions worried about “privatisation”, if the John Lewis style and model of governance is properly incorporated and invested in. Who would need the unions?

Any lessons for social entrepreneurs here? Plenty.

If we ignore the social bit for a moment, any profit motivated entrepreneur ought to know that customer satisfaction will drive their success. How many of us really think and behave like JL people? Do we ever ask and verify what our customers, beneficiaries, clients, members really think of our services and products and what they actually want?

 In addition, repeat selling to existing customers is an easier way to build a business than trying to find new ones – any of us have a sales and marketing strategy that addresses that?

The history of John Lewis is of a private sector business handed over to its employees. I’m waiting to see how these new public service businesses raise the capital to start their ventures and whether or not the State will copy John Spedan Lewis in handing over the assets. As a taxpayer, I might have a problem with that if I think that communities rather than government employees could make better use of government or public sector assets and set up alternative social enterprises.

Finally though, I like the fact that John Lewis has a written constitution that states “the happiness of its members’ is the Partnership’s ultimate purpose”. You see, self interest is part of the driver for any entrepreneur; social, ethical or otherwise.