Last year, corporate clothing specialist Simon Jersey's operations impressed all the judges, but it was felt that the company still had some way to go in other areas, particularly in gathering feedback about its service to customers. The actions that the business has taken since then to improve on these points made it the natural candidate for this year's Learning Organisation award, sponsored by Cranfield School of Management.
The company beat wire manufacturer John Pring and Kraft Foods' Away from Home division to the honours.
Simon Jersey provides the uniforms worn by DHL delivery men, American Airlines ground staff, chefs, nurses, bank tellers and other occupations around the UK and Europe, via both bespoke contracts and a catalogue of more than 1,000 stock garments. The clothes are designed at the company's architecturally acclaimed HQ in Accrington, Lancashire, then manufactured at sites in Britain and around the world from Romania to Morocco, Indonesia and Malaysia.
It is a complex operation in a competitive market, where logistics, design and price each play a vital part in achieving satisfied customers. The diverse range of clients that Simon Jersey serves, both in size and in sector, makes the goal of customer satisfaction an even more daunting challenge. For service purposes, the company has divided them into four principal groups: smaller catalogue buyers, major catalogue accounts, bespoke customers, and export.
Over the past 12 months Simon Jersey introduced a Voice of the Customer programme dedicated to ensuring that the needs of each group are fully understood, and to establish how they could be better served. The programme involves sending 10,000 questionnaires a year to catalogue customers, surveying the buyers on all major accounts (many for the first time), initiating surveys of direct customers in Europe, and introducing 'mystery shoppers' to compare Simon Jersey's service with that of rivals as well as non-competitors such as Next and Racing Green.
'We have been seeking to make improvements wherever we can,' says technical director Richard Mullen. 'Our job specs used to be quite woolly; now they all have measurable parameters. We visited a German company where performance data were displayed on every wall, so we are now increasing the visibility of our own data. We have tasked each of our managers to come up with one measurable improvement.'
Simon Jersey puts great emphasis on employee training and education.
In 1988, the company created a Learning Centre, which has a dual purpose: it serves as a classroom for departments to train their members on specific issues, but employees can also use it outside office hours for their own personal development. The company set up a 'signing' class at the request of one deaf employee, so that she would be able to communicate with her colleagues.
In a complex organisation, it's vital that all departments work well together, so Simon Jersey introduced a Department of the Year trophy, voted on by all employees and awarded to the department judged to have delivered the best service to its own customers. Last year it was won by IT.
This readiness to learn, adapt and seek out constant improvement has been paying dividends. Sales have virtually quadrupled over five years from pounds 7.3 million in 1995 to pounds 28.6 million in 2000, with profit per employee well ahead of the competition. But at Simon Jersey there is no time for complacency; improvement is a journey with no end in sight.