Supermarkets come in for a lot of stick – some of it deserved. But the critics lack credibility if they don’t also recognise the remarkable achievements of the likes of Tesco and its former chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy.
The point is well made in Charles Moore’s Daily Telegraph review of Leahy’s new book, Management in Ten Words. For instance, supermarkets are attacked for selling huge quantities of junk food (which, of course they do) – but, there’s also a spectacular upside:
- "In 1979, Tesco sold as much butter as it did fruit and vegetables. Today, thanks to innovations such as the plastic tray that can take the products straight from source to shelf, it sells 40 times more fruit and veg than butter. This must be a greater victory for nutrition than all the propaganda ever put out by the British government."
Unlike, say, the public sector, the supermarkets have hugely improved the delivery of an essential service – and food is every bit as essential as healthcare or education – while reducing its cost:
- "In 1979, Tesco sold one tenth of the number of products it sells today. In roughly the same period, food prices in Britain have declined, in real terms, by a third. Sir Terry calculates that ‘Tesco saved the typical household almost £5,000 on its shopping bills in a decade’."
According to Moore, doing more with less isn’t the only conservative principle in action here:
- "This book advocates a formidable combination. On the one hand, it relentlessly favours change, in the form of technological and methodological improvement. On the other, with its emphasis on ‘values’, it is conservative. Concepts such as trust, punctuality, discipline and good manners are central. Leahy is wary when companies start to chase after a ‘new challenge’ that claims to overthrow the past. "Most problems have been faced before," he says. He is almost caustic about the phrase (much loved of politicians) ‘Doing nothing is not an option’: it is often the best course."
Unfortunately, doing nothing is not an option for the current government. Either the British state must learn to do more with less or we all go under. This will require profound organisational change throughout the public sector, and, as Charles Moore concludes, those responsible should learn from those who truly understand organisations:
- "Leahy says that ‘the history of mankind is one of organisation’, but he also says that ‘organisations are terrible at confronting the truth’. The contrast between Tesco’s success since 1997, and government’s failure, shows the difference between organisations with a strong institutional memory and an ethic of service, and those that have thrown away both."