Transformation at speed: How John Lewis and Partners turn challenges into advantages
Disruption is a reality in every industry on the planet.
The breakneck pace of technological advancement underpins the radical changes we are all experiencing in the way we live, work, and play. Of any business sector, it’s arguable that retail continues to feel the sharpest pain of disruption. Just this past week the British Retail Consortium announced that UK retailers suffered the worst Christmas trading in over a decade.
Leading British based retailer, John Lewis and Partners, offered the high street a beacon of hope by closing the year with a 4.5% increase in sales (year-on-year). So how have they been turning the challenges posed by disruption into advantages, and what’s next for their business?
Ahead of our event ‘Only the agile can thrive; Exploring digital transformation in retail’ on February 7th in London, we’ve had a chat with two of our featured speakers (and valued clients) from John Lewis and Partners. We asked Alex Wotton, Head of Testing and Sandra Christie, Head of Technical Design, Development and Analysis about their ongoing digital transformation journey and the critical role culture continues to play.
From an IT delivery perspective, as you continue on your digital transformation journey, what do you believe will be the key focus for John Lewis and Partners going forward to meet the needs of the future customer?
[Alex] As the IT delivery arm of our business, our focus is on making sure we help our commercial Partners (John Lewis employees and colleagues) to deliver the right product at the right time to our customers. We have worked hard over the past few years to ensure our partners are armed with the right technology and skills to succeed. Our continued focus is on working with our Partners across the business to co-create new products that deliver real value to our customers.
For us, transformation has not just been about having the right technology and tools to succeed. It has been about supporting and investing in our partners as they go through their skills transformation journey.
Growing and expanding our capabilities is another area of focus for us going forward. To be future-ready, we are working on attracting and acquiring the best engineering talent from across the industry, as well as supporting our existing engineering partners to upskill or reskill to meet the needs of our future customer.
With such rapid advancements in innovation, it can be a challenge to keep pace with the workforce skills needed to be future-ready, how have you been tackling this challenge at John Lewis and Partners?
[Alex] From the outset we knew we wanted to invest in our partners and bring them along on this exciting journey with us. We deliberately took our time to get this right. With a transformation of this scale to more agile and lean approaches, some other organisations have made the decision to let go of people who may not have had the right skills mix. As a business, we decided to take a different approach. To invest and upskill our partners and help them diversify.
We realised it was not about getting the right engineering skills so we could deliver A, B, and C. It was about creating an environment where learning is part of the fabric of your culture. Leading with a growth mindset is at the heart of everything that you do.
To achieve this we spent time setting the scene in terms of how we wanted to build stuff in the future. We involved core teams in the area of development including testing, project management, and analysis. And we created a number of communities of interest for learning e.g. an agile test community and ‘seven languages in seven weeks’ for the developer community.
We have tried to put the onus on our partners to drive their own learning journeys. We have established training courses, build camps, provided access to multiple channels to help them learn and thrive in the new digital world. We have provided the opportunities – now it is up to the Partners to take advantage of these opportunities to progress their careers.
[Sandra] For us, this was never about a short-term fix to a challenge or to achieve short-term gains. We want our Partners to carry on learning into the future. This is why it’s important for them to own their own learning journey and have that desire to build and improve and continue to change into the future. Learning should be continuous and its how we want to approach our work forever. That’s why it has to be in the control of our Partners.
With your move to a more lean and agile approach across your business, what would you say has been the biggest barrier to adoption, and how did you tackle it?
[Alex] From the outset we were aware of some of the common barriers we would need to overcome. Our first real challenge was in helping our partners understand the role they would play in our transformation journey, and to what extent their work could potentially change in the future.
So addressing these core elements of change has been our primary focus over the last twelve months. And while the obstacles we faced were not unsurpassable, they have been pretty challenging at times. We have learned a great deal in the process. Particularly around the importance of explaining the change to other parts of the business, and taking the time to do this properly. For our transformation to be a success, we knew it was important to bring everyone on the journey with us, make them feel involved, help them to understand what we were trying to achieve, and get them excited about what opportunities lay ahead.
[Sandra] In the past, as an IT delivery team, we would have put a business case forward to our commercial partners for millions of pounds to implement a new large-scale system. Often this investment was based on an initial view of what a project of this scale might involve. On reflection, requesting that level of funding when there were no guarantees the proposed solution was going to work, was madness really.
The way we work now is so much better, and it was important that we got all our partners on board with the benefits of changing to a more agile and lean approach. Now we need much smaller incremental investments for projects, we can involve stakeholders in a much more fluid way, and we can put regular checks in place to make sure that what we are developing is fit-for-purpose.
We have reached an exciting stage of our journey, where it’s all about trying new ideas, experimenting, and creating an environment where our partners feel safe to fail and have the ability to adapt quickly when things need to change.
With the recent rebrand to include ‘and Partners’ can you share a few insights into the significance of partners as a differentiator for your business?
[Sandra] The purpose of our rebrand was about the people who make a difference, the people who care, the people who are going to make this successful. They are our Partners, which is how we refer to our employees and colleagues.
We strongly believe our Partners are what makes us different because we care and value our uniqueness as individuals and what that brings to our business. The rebrand was a recognition that our Partners are our differentiator and they are critical to ensuring we achieve our future ambitions.
Can you share any insights into how you approach innovation to keep ahead in this age of disruption?
[Alex] One of the things that we do and publicize quite well is our JLAB incubator which has evolved over the past few years. This initiative has involved us partnering with more nimble startups (2–3 people) who have a great idea. Our aim is to give them support and a platform to bring their idea to life and trial in our stores to develop and refine it further.
We are hugely supportive of innovation, we are always open to ideas from outside as well as inside our business. We partner with both small start-ups and traditional third parties that we work closely with to achieve good delivery outcomes.
[Alex] Visualising the work we do is a big part of sparking new innovative ideas. We are massive advocates for visualizing our work here, we use Jira for tracking all our work, but we also like to have physical Kanban boards around the office.
We have found it really helps to keep the teams connected and to help senior stakeholders to get involved in what we are doing. Our stakeholders may have heard of the concepts of agile, lean, and going faster but sometimes they can feel like abstract terms that don’t really mean much. The visual boards help bring these concepts to life and make everyone feel involved.
In an era of accelerating change, where rapid product delivery has become the norm, how do you balance the need for speed alongside the customer's increasing demand for quality?
[Alex] It comes down to adopting good agile and lean principles. We try to create a culture where everyone feels a responsibility for quality. It’s everyone’s responsibility to find defects and build quality into our solutions and our business as a whole.
With our move to agile, we have been evolving from old school waterfall test techniques to having a set of test principles and working in a much more agile manner. We consider quality at every step of our development lifecycle. We test often, early and effectively as possible within our agile framework. For example, we have moved away from traditional large scale performance testing at the end of a workstream delivery to using tools like Gatling for early performance testing within a development sprint.
[Sandra] Even though we have a set of engineering principles we like people to work within, we want to ensure people have freedom within this framework. In order to achieve better quality we know we can’t be too restrictive as we will run the risk of stifling creativity and not allowing people to flourish. So we encourage people to work within our framework but give them the freedom to work in a way that suits the team or project they are working on.
Can you share any tips on keeping morale going during long-term transformation projects?
[Alex] For the whole journey, we have really tried not to make this an onerous thing, to inject a sense of fun and ambition along the way. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we want people to come along on this journey as one team together.
We are all invested in the outcome obviously as we are all partners in the organization but we don't want people to do this if it feels like purgatory for them. To inject a bit of fun, once partners have completed different waves of training we host a kick-off party to get everyone together and celebrate a milestone.
[Sandra] It can be easy to overlook having fun in the pressure of delivery cycles. So it’s something that we are actively injecting back into the way we work. Having fun is easy when things are going great, but that’s not always reality. So we set out to recognise all our learning milestones and celebrate every lesson learned along the way.
Only the Agile Can Thrive
Spaces are limited, so reserve your seat now to hear more from Alex and Sandra at Adaptavist’s ‘Only the agile can thrive: Exploring digital transformation in retail’ event on Thursday, February 7th, 2019 in London.