For many the departure of Ron Johnson former CEO of JC Penney’s has gone unnoticed. But, not in my household, not because we’re a frequent shopper at Penney’s it’s because my wife works there part time and was (as colleagues of hers) the recipient of the numerous changes Johnson put in place. During his tenure, I heard about the constant confusion brought on by his incessant ready aim fire change process.

Normally, I would listen (as a well-trained husband is supposed to do) to her concerns, (I told you I was well train, it’s always concerns not complaints) and just move on about my activities. But, his name rang a bell and then I realized this was the same Ron Johnson from Apple. I had recently finished Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs. The changes she was voicing her concerns about were similar to what Isaacson wrote about in chapter 29, especially when he described the customer experience.

Johnson tried to turn Penney’s into Apple. He thought the Apple store success would easily translated into the world of discount apparel and home good products. Common sense and his pre Apple experience should had sent his Spider senses tingling, but, he was still under the influence of the “reality distortion field” prominent in the Apple Culture. It was Jobs way of getting people to believe they could get things done in extremely short timeframes.

Think of it as Scotty the engineer, telling Captain Kirk it would take fours to fix the warp engine and Kirk giving him two, and Scotty would complete the task with only minutes to spare. Johnson was making Jobs like demands for changes and imposing short timeframes expecting that people would rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, he miscalculated on several levels.

His first and perhaps the most damaging, he failed to know his customer base. He was trying to convince Penney’s customers they didn’t know what they wanted until he showed them. He conflated Penney customers with Apple customers. The only thing they have in common is the word customer. People, who purchase Apple products, are cult like in their obsession. They go to an Apple store to purchase an Apple product, the only thing that an Apple store sells.

His second miscalculation was he didn’t learn from his Apple experience. Based on what Isaacson wrote, Jobs created a prototype store to test ideas, and when he brought Johnson on board, he spent many hours discussing ideas and made changes, to Johnson, surprised on recommendations he had made to Jobs. It was reported that when asked if he was going to test his change on the coupons, he replied, “no of course not.” He didn’t listen to his management team. He thought Jobs didn’t listen, and just ploughed ahead, but Jobs just pretended he didn’t. When one of him managers came up with a good idea he would use it.

His third miscalculation he allowed his most recent success (Apple Stores) overshadow his collective experience in the retail field. Another way of saying this is he believed his own press. Much was made of JC Penney’s management getting him from Apple. They saw him as their savior, and fully believed he would turn the company around and guide them to greater profitability. Sadly, so did Johnson. His rapid rise in the retail industry and his successes at Target and Apple no doubt were contributors to his demise.

Trying to make JC Penney’s as successful as the Apple stores was the goal. They hired the right individual who played a major part in the success of the Apple stores. It could have been successful if Johnson had a malleable Apple like board and Apple like customers.

Which he didn’t and which ultimately lead to his short tenure.

© Timothy A. Wilson 2013. All Rights Reserved