A Plan

"My God, Don," Neppl said the next day. "How did we miss it? It's only the all-time personnel problem."

"Any ideas offhand?"

"No. We've got some thinking to do." But they were dry for several weeks until the tris scare.

One day a news report tied every major retailer in knots. Penney, thanks to Seibert, shook it off much faster than its competition. The bad news was that tris, a flame-retardant chemical used to treat children's clothes (a big Penney profit center), was discovered to be a potential carcinogen. The day the story broke, journalists all over the country asked retailers what they intended to do about it.

Seibert immediately called an ad hoc committee together. It contained managers from public relations, the head children's buyers , the distribution and inventory control groups, legal, and consumer affairs. After a hasty report on the potential impact, senior merchandise executive Bob Gill said, "Well, there's really no issue. We have to yank the goods." After details were discussed, the committee members went back to their various departments and got to work. By that afternoon the company had begun to pull all tris-treated merchandise from its shelves . The Penney action was communicated to customers weeks before any of the other large chains had even framed a response.

This experience provided the germ of an answer to the larger question that had come to haunt Seibert and Neppl. A big company could be just as responsive as a small one if it could be organized into a broad array of smaller, fully empowered operating groups led by individuals . Strategic thought would come by crossdepartmental working groups led by responsible individuals . Tactical decisions would be made at the level where they were to be implemented by empowered individuals . Such an organization would never suffer from bureaucratic paralysis, instead encouraging associates to think through issues and act , rather than waiting for new directives or procedures to trickle down from above.

From concept to workable plan was , in Neppl's original words, the "all-time personnel problem." However, both men knew it was a doable deal. Then Walt Neppl retired in 1982, soon to be followed by Seibert. Their plan was taking shape but required skillful development for another year or two. But this was one of the reasons Bill Howell had been chosen as the next CEO. Howell was young, in his late forties. He would be able to follow through with the former administration's plans (a Penney tradition) and still have ample time left in which to set his own course.

And so Seibert retired with misguided confidence in the plan's future. [7]

[7] Ironically, the plan was a diametric opposite of the consensus management style that peaked during the reign of Howell's successor, Jim Oesterreicher. Assumption of responsibility and action, not consensus conformity , was the backbone of the Seibert/Neppl plan.

Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare

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