How Johnstons of Elgin weaved business success with workplace innovation

It may well be one of Scotland’s oldest family businesses, but it’s Johnstons of Elgin’s modern approach to working life that allows it to successfully compete in the global market.

Founded in 1797 – and now with two factories in Scotland, a shop in London, a thriving website and a presence on the world’s catwalks – luxury clothing brand, Johnstons of Elgin is successfully reinventing its products to appeal to today’s market.

Chief executive Simon Cotton tells us more about the workplace innovation concepts behind the company’s growing success.

The importance of people

Simon, who joined Johnstons of Elgin three years ago, says: "Workplace innovation might be a new label, but the idea of valuing our people goes back way before that term, or my time here.”

The foundation of Johnstons' success lies in the skills of its employees. In the craft tradition, Simon explains, the expertise of skilled craftspeople is honed over decades.

“We really understand that it is the skilled workers who are best placed to come up with innovations,” Simon says. “They are the people who will improve workflow and increase efficiency in the production process.

“Every business talks about how its people are its most important asset. At Johnstons we don’t just talk about it, we live and breathe it.” 

Skills development

With the pace of change much faster than in previous decades, Simon explains that Johnstons has to be agile, flexible and responsive to market demands.

“Our people have to be ready and equipped to respond,” says Simon. As a result, education and training take a major role in developing the company’s workforce.

The core idea of workplace innovation is to increase workers’ sense of fulfilment by contributing to making real improvements to the business.

“We’ve worked hard at empowering staff to take control, to share their knowledge and expertise, improving the processes and enhancing their own experience," explains Simon. 

Culture of learning and personal growth

As an industry that depends quite heavily on an older workforce, one of the bigger challenges Johnstons has faced is how to attract young people into the company.

In response, Johnstons has set up a training academy in Hawick. The company also participates in interactions and collaborations with schools in local communities, and has set up its modern apprenticeship scheme.

But it’s not just about training new recruits. The apprenticeship scheme is open to new and existing staff, and all ages can take part.

“Everyone in the business can benefit from a culture where learning and growing is seen as the norm," explains the company’s HR director Willie Wood.

“We’ve been working hard at providing training to existing staff – offering opportunities to learn new skills within the company and consider moving to different roles.

“We are committed to showing staff what happens across the business, giving them far more context for their own contribution. It’s our people who apply the ideas in their day to day work, making small improvements that together add up to success.” 

Valuable support

A significant factor in Johnstons' successful development has been its involvement with the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS). 

"We have worked closely with SMAS and their expertise has been hugely valuable in developing the workforce", says Willie. 

"They provide the theory that helps identify issues with our workflow but once again it is our people who apply the ideas in their day to day work, making small improvements that together add up to success."

Russell Fair, Nick Bannerman, and Graham Wilson from Johnstons of Elgin looking at a book
Factory machinist at Johnston of Elgin

How we can help

Willie adds: "Skilled workers are knowledgeable about their area of work and can often be better placed to be able to contribute improvements than more senior staff. Listening to their ideas will improve processes and procedures, as well as helping those workers to feel valued and enabled. 

"We think of this as a 'virtuous circle', which will lead to increased motivation, higher quality and improved retention in the workforce."

Through our workplace innovation support, we can help businesses to: 

  • Create empowering workplace environments
  • Listen to employees' ideas and put them into practice 
  • Enable employees across all levels to use their knowledge, competencies and talents to the fullest 
  • Offer fair work practices that reduce employee stress, enhance job satisfaction, improve mental health and increase retention

Next step

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