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Keynote speaker Darren Burns explains ‘Upside Down Management’ at NFSP Annual Conference

May 13, 2024 |

Keynote speaker Darren Burns gave an inspiring and engaging speech at the NFSP Annual Conference on Sunday afternoon.

Darren, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Timpson Group, spoke about the culture at Timpson and explained how Upside Down Management is key to their whole business.

After his speech Darren took several questions from postmasters. A full video of Darren’s speech and the Q&A session will be available on the NFSP YouTube channel in the coming days.

Speaking to delegates about Upside Down Management, Darren said: “I often get asked what the best thing is about working for Timpson. I’ve thought about this a lot and my conclusion is it’s our culture of kindness and compassion.

“The biggest change in our culture came in the late 1990s when Sir John Timpson, who is our current chairman, coined the term Upside Down Management.

“Like most good ideas, this was not original. It was something John had pinched from a department store in the US.

“The basic premise was that most conventional businesses are shaped like a pyramid with the most important people sitting at the top – the decision makers, the board of directors and at the bottom you’ve got the low skilled, low paid colleagues. What we decided to do was turn that on its head and the most important people in our business where the people at the top.

“You can imagine it’s like an inverted pyramid, so the kings and queens of our business are the people serving customers, cutting keys, repairing shoes, repairing watches.

“We really live by those rules.

“Everything senior managers do in the business is to make the lives of our colleagues who are working in our branches easier.

“John realised our colleagues were not only our best asset but that we need to trust them to run the business how they see fit. It’s all well and good for senior managers in fantasy company cars and diamond suits to be making decisions but what we decided to do was empower our colleagues to run their business as they see fit.

“The best way to do that was initially change our language. Whereas most businesses have HQ, we don’t. We have Timpson House.

“Most businesses have HR, we don’t. We have colleague support, and we don’t have any staff.

“Staff infers a hierarchy, that someone is better than somebody else. Instead, we have colleagues, we’re all colleagues in Timpson. That’s from James Timpson, the CEO, down to our colleagues in stores.

“How do we implement it? John decided to do away with most of our rules and regulations. There were many layers of unnecessary middle management.

“If a colleague in a branch wanted to make a quick change to improve the business, there were countless rules and regulations and countless people they needed permission off. There was an area manager, a regional manager, somebody in head office or Timpson House. It was a very convoluted process.

“John and James decided they would get rid of all those rules and replace them with two rules.

“The two rules were put money in the till, which as a commercial business is quite important and rule number two, look the part.

“Look the part encompasses a number of things but it means act the part, look the part, be on point, make sure the branch is tidy, you have pride in your appearance and take pride in your premises and you do your best for the customer.

“As you can imagine, this did not go down well with some of our colleagues, certainly our middle managers who were pretty miffed they had all this kind of authority seemingly taken away from them."

How Timpson changed the culture

“It took years and years for us to change our culture.

“A good example of this is if any of our Timpson colleagues make a mistake. They might be repairing an expensive pair of shoes, and if they slip they could cause hundreds of pounds worth of damage. All our colleagues are authorised to put that mistake right immediately. They don’t need an area manager or regional manager, they can take £500 out of the till there and then to say ‘I’m awfully sorry, I’ve damaged your shoes, it was our mistake’.

“By doing that, we can guarantee repeat customers and ultimately no harm done.

“Some of our area managers got wind of this because one colleague had paid out £400. The area manager spoke to the colleague and said ‘you mustn’t do this, you must speak to me and ask for permission’.

“Unfortunately for that area manager, James Timpson got wind of that and thought this person is not adhering to our two major rules. So, James increased the limit to £5,000 in that area so nobody ever questioned it again.

“A positive example of Upside Down Management came in 2003 when James and John Timpson went to visit a branch in Bristol.

“They spend most of their time visiting branches but won’t announce these visits. They’ll just turn up to speak to colleagues, find out how everything is going, how their businesses work and what improvements are needed.

“When they got to the branch in Bristol, our colleague, Bob, who is an outstanding colleague and has been with us for years, was busy and didn’t notice James and John come in.

“When he did, he got all flustered and embarrassed.

“They asked what he was doing behind the counter. Bob said he was really sorry and was doing something he shouldn’t be. James thought it sounded suspicious, but it turned out Bob was fixing a battery in someone’s watch. One of his customers had asked Bob to fit a new battery in his watch which wasn’t something we do.

“Bob had used his own initiative, sourced some batteries from eBay and he replaced them. He did the right thing, in charging the customer and putting money in the till.

“Rather than James and John saying Bob shouldn’t be doing this and give him a written warning or worse, James thought this could be a real goer for Timpson business. He sent Bob on a watch repair course, invested a couple of hundred quid in watch repair kits and piloted it in that area.

“Twenty years on, watch repairs are the most profitable service within the Timpson Group with millions of pounds per year.

“This is all from an example of Upside Down Management.”

Darren also spoke about Timpson’s recruitment policy, how the company invests in colleague development, a Happy Index to ensure colleague support, how unhappy colleagues are helped to find new jobs and much more.