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Rethinking Management: Turning the Theory Upside Down

Within 20 minutes of where I live I can be in the Peak District, a national park in the North of the UK. My story isn't about the amazing walks on my doorstep, it's about the boots worn by my mate, Rick. Walking behind Rick one day I commented that the sole of one of his boots was coming off. He told me that he could get this fixed at Timpson's who have a repair kiosk close to where he lives. The next week on our hike I could see that his boot was repaired and it prompted a story that interested me. He had gone into the Timpson kiosk, presented his boot for repair, and the man behind the desk said it wouldn't be a problem and he should pick it up the next day. This he did at which time he asked how much was owed for the service. The Timpson's man said "it wasn't a big job, have it on us".

 

I found this unbelievable and so did Rick. In fact, he returned to the kiosk during the week to get a new set of keys and a battery for his watch.

 

Lots of stories are told about Timpson and their attitude to management which prompted me to tune in to a podcast run by the Economist newspaper called "Into the upside down".  On the podcast, John Timpson, the owner of the Timpson's repair shops told how he had inherited the company set up by his great-grandfather 160 years ago and had to figure out how to update the organisation and ensure that it remained competitive.

 

He came across an article about the American retailer Nordstrom which described how they used upside down management. In this interesting framework you turn a typical organisation chart on its head. At the top of the organisation are people who deal with customers and make things happen. Supporting these, from the bottom, are managers. Timpson adopted a similar approach. The people in Timpson’s kiosks had to abide by just two rules: rule number one is look smart and keep the place clean; rule number two is always put the money in the till. An additional suggestion was that kiosk managers do one random act of kindness each day. It appears that my mate Rick was lucky enough to call in on Timpson's when the kiosk manager decided it was time to hand out an act of kindness and his boot was repaired for free.

 

John Timpson acknowledges that making these changes wasn't easy. Managerial colleagues felt that they would lose control by giving so much freedom to the people in the kiosks. However, John had faith in the frontline. People there knew the business; they knew their customers, and they were best placed to understand and address customers’ needs. Managers in the business should be there to support them, not tell them what to do.

 

You have to have the right people behind the counter to have upside down managers. The interview form for prospective employees at Timpson’s is not your boring cv. It contains lots of drawings and characters in the form of "Mr Men". There is Mr Scruffy, Mrs Keen, Mr Helpful, Miss Happy and so on. The recruit has to tick boxes that best describes which cartoon reflects their own personality. These answers enable Timpson to see if the recruit is a "people person" and it is all they need to know. From there they are invited to work for half a day in one of the kiosks after which, if both parties are still happy, they are taken on full-time.

 

This reminds me of a framework by the psychologist Douglas McGregor. In the 1960s he wrote a book called The Human Side of Enterprise in which he identified two sorts of people: Theory X people who are lazy and avoid work and Theory Y people who want to work hard and get ahead. John Timpson believes most people can be classed as Theory Y. 

 

This belief in people and what motivates them has paid off for Timpson. According to Wikipedia, the business has grown through a series of acquisitions to 2100 retail outlets today. It has been in the top 10 of the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For every time it has entered. A look at Timpson’s financial results at Companies House shows that revenue increased in 2022 to £298 million, up from £212 million in 2021. This allowed the company to be extremely generous in its charitable donations. These were £1.1 million in 2022 up from £600,000 in 2021. Group net profit after tax was £33 million in 2022 compared to £22 million in 2021. This is surely evidence enough that John Timpson's theory of upside down management is worth thinking about.

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