Best Practice: culture change

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. This week, Morag Robertson, business excellence manager for the Logistics division of Sainsbury’s Supermarkets talks culture change

The Logistics division of Sainsburys Supermarkets manages the flow of goods in the supply chain between about 4,000 suppliers at one end and the retail store outlets at the other. More than 25,000 product lines are involved and the division’s 350 employees administer the movement of 13.5 million cases of goods every week, a figure that rises to 19 million during the Christmas rush.

From its formation in 1995 as a result of business process re-engineering, Logistics has paid a great deal of attention to cultural change. The division adopted the Sainsbury Group’s corporate business strategy – the Web Strategy – that appeared in October 1996 with the aim of making Sainsbury’s “The Customer’s First Choice”.

Says Logistics business planning manager Mark O’Hanlon: “The Web Strategy presented a compelling need for change. Clear accountabilities mapped out in the new vision meant job descriptions and performance measures had to reflect more cross-functional roles. But we also had to answer the natural reaction from employees of ‘What’s in this for me?'”.

Gaining “hearts and minds” is never easy but guiding principles within the Web Strategy have helped, namely:

1. We can always do better.

2. We know how well we’re doing.

3. We work together as a team.

4. We respect and appreciate each other.

5. We develop and enjoy ourselves.

6. We are equipped to succeed.

The division has also developed The Logistics Contract listing seven areas of work expectation.


Deeper understanding


All this demands well trained, highly motivated and customer-responsive employees. It also requires a deeper understanding of their perceptions of the company’s management styles, reward and recognition methods. This is achieved through surveys, interviews and focus groups, along with the assessment of attitudes, behaviours and the effectiveness of existing processes and systems.

To measure progress, improvement projects hook up to the division’s overall supply chain cost reduction and availability target. In addition, we have examined our behavioural styles through a cultural circumplex model developed by Human Synergistics, the New Zealand change management consultants. This visual, high impact tool clearly defines the behavioural style(s) present in a company (or department) and maps them on to a pictorial “wheel”.

First results, in January 1998, proved illuminating: what staff wanted was a constructive-type organisation. What we actually had in place was a mix of passive defensive and aggressive defensive styles. Indeed, the response against the affiliative (supportive, people-oriented, team-based and friendly) section proved a bit of a shock. We all considered ourselves to be young, socially minded people who met regularly after work and who would, therefore, reflect this sense of bonding in the organisational style.

Taking stock of the situation, a group of 22 “change agents” – naturally influential volunteers who include operational managers, a computer programmer and a director’s PA – have been enlisted to begin turning the organisation around. Pending another review planned for this spring, staff comments indicate that things are moving the right way, pointing to a more visible and relaxed management style, and a willingness to discuss problems openly.

For senior management, the review triggered the idea of a team showcase – literally a display board for each improvement team outlining current activities and personal observations – to engender a sense of common purpose. It alerts people to the fact that everyone, including senior management, have to come to terms with new ways of working.

Probing the subject of empowerment within Logistics, our 1998 employee satisfaction survey revealed that:

• two-thirds of managers do encourage their staff to make decisions

• 80 per cent of Logistics employees understand the boundaries of their authority

• 70 per cent are willing to try new solutions

• an overwhelming majority (85 per cent) are prepared to challenge the status quo.

In the past four years, our culture change programme has increased employee satisfaction, provided better communications and improved business performance. Now the division faces fresh challenges. On 15 January Logistics will merge with the Distribution division, which handles the physical shipment of goods, to form an integrated supply chain staffed by over 3,000 people.

Cost pressures continue as competition intensifies and margins come under government scrutiny. And there still remains the problem of how to regain that number one position in food retailing.

In short, culture change must remain a continuous activity, a way of life.

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