It’s a family-owned shoe brand that has been around since the end of the 18th century, but it took an outsider’s perspective to truly prepare Start-rite for the rise of ecommerce.
Norfolk-based Start-rite has been making shoes for children – including Royal feet – since 1792. Two years ago, Ian Watson took the helm as the first non-family chief executive, tasked with dragging the firm and its 86 employees into the 21st century.
For a company that still processed orders on paper, the transformative changes Watson and operational director Gavin Price are bringing about are radical. While the business outsourced its manufacturing to India 15 years ago, at the heart of the turnaround strategy is a move to drastically improve operational efficiency in its people, processes and systems – instilling a culture of continuous improvement.
“Fundamentally we are trying to put the consumer at the heart of everything we do,” explained Watson. Ecommerce is a big area of expansion for the firm, so he knew it would require a high efficiency distribution centre to handle Start-rite’s new ambitions. It is Price’s job to execute this strategy, and his focus has been redesigning, systemising and automating Start-rite’s processes, whilst at the same time re-training the workforce not only in the new skills the company requires but in a modern mindset.
“We saw our operational side of the business as something that was grossly inefficient because it was a manually managed operation,” said Watson. It was impossible for the firm to continue to operate this way if it were to deliver on its ecommerce strategy.
At the top of its list was the automation of the ordering process. Installing a £100,000 machine has taken a five-stage process that took two minutes per order to a 20-second, two-stage process. A new warehouse management system, which went live in March 2018, connects with the machine and streamlines the rest of the distribution process. Working with a new courier to deliver orders has also been important. “We are now 83 per cent more efficient”, claimed Price.
Instil continuous improvement in company culture
Price is well-versed in the managerial principles of Kaizen and Lean, and wanted to bring a mentality of continuous improvement to Start-rite. “It has been hard because a lot of the workforce here used to be shoemakers – they are not logisticians. I come from a background of eliminating waste, making everything efficient. A lot of the core staff in the distribution centre have never worked with key performance indicators.”
Despite this, Price cautioned that the balance between new and old ways must be managed carefully. Not every old way of working is bad, he explained. “You have to balance that with people. A few wins the other way around actually works. If you go back and say: ‘you were right, it was better the way it was’, it equals people out. Otherwise they just see you as a change agent and are not interested in what you have to say. Everyone’s opinion is valid so you’ve got to manage that push and pull,” he said.
Train employees in eliminating waste
In 2017, Start-rite invested in substantial training for 18 out of its 86 employees predominately based in its Norwich distribution centre to give them the fundamentals of the principles of “lean” – which is fundamentally about taking waste out of processes.
“It was about giving the team a set of skills so that they could map a couple of the key processes in the business and come up with how they would take out some of the waste,” said Watson. “They came up with the problem solving.” Staff were sent to off-site workshops, where they detailed the processes they were involved in. “We gave them the time away from the day job to come up with the best possible solution,” revealed Watson.
One such project concerned the improvement of the returns process, which involved nearly every department at the firm. “It was a good one to choose because you bring everyone together,” added Price. “When we actually mapped out the process, people were shocked by other people’s involvement and how long the process was. We looked at making it smarter, eliminating time, and making the consumer experience better.”
His key learning was to make sure that, if staff are given autonomy, you give them a clear deliverable. “You’ve got to be quite specific, saying: ‘I want you to look at this process because I think it is broken’, otherwise you leave it too wide and everyone wants to heal every little problem in the business,” explained Price.
Structure approach to making improvements
The new warehouse management system allows Start-rite to measure and track performance and make improvements. For the first time, the company can evaluate all staff. “If you’re meant to be picking 100, and you are only picking 80, we need to address that,” said Price. KPIs can be tracked alongside service levels, which gives Start-Rite immediate insight for future planning.
With a clear strategy for the business now in place, Watson thinks Start-rite employees can now see how they fit into the grand scheme of things. “We have rolled out our appraisal and objective-setting process for the company, so everybody is crystal clear on what their role is within delivering that change,” he added. “As the business has been going backwards for many years, there’s a universal understanding and acceptance that we need to change.”
Clear communication, and a lot of it, is critical for success, advised Price. “Some of our aged workforce had never used a WiFi picking gun before and completed everything on paper. They were once manufacturing shoes, and now I’m saying we are going to act like DHL – that’s a totally different thing. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you think you have communicated enough, you never have.”
Watson believes his biggest lesson in leading a turnaround is appreciating the need to balance the different rates of change across all the functions. “We’ve improved in certain functions quicker than others and actually getting that balance of bringing the whole organisation to a more professional level will probably be my biggest learning.”
Price, meanwhile, is an advocate of not being afraid to try new things. “Some of the new people we needed are from within. We have a distribution centre manager who is a shoemaker and since we’ve moved him into a quality role we are reaping far more benefits than trying to put him into a role that he was not fit for.
“It’s about the right people in the right job. Don’t be afraid of trying things and moving things around.”
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