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Business on Fire Part I: JCPenney and Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson succeeded wildly in redesigning Target stores and building Apple Stores, but crashed and burned JCPenney and Enjoy.com

Ron Johnson in JCPenney logo circa 2012
Ron Johnson 2012 JCPenney Logo

As an executive working for other CEOs, Ron Johnson succeeded wildly in redesigning Target stores and building Apple Stores from scratch. But then, as a CEO, Ron Johnson crashed and burned two later companies, JCPenney and Enjoy.com.

Join Dan Dickson, a seasoned retail executive and Harvard Business School grad, and Dan Greening, co-host of Mindful Agility, as we talk about Ron Johnson’s first failure, JCPenney.

Major shifts in management practice arise from crises. Lean Manufacturing helped Toyota and Japan survive, after the Japanese industrial base had been destroyed in World War II. Lean Manufacturing now dominates the auto industry, and failure to adopt its principles bankrupted General Motors and others.

Agile management practices arose from spectacular software project failures. Agile now dominates software teams and is expanding to other creative teams and whole businesses. Managers increasingly aspire to “business agility.”

This first of three episodes analyzes the JCPenney business failure from a classic perspective. The second examines organizational mindfulness, to see if it could have averted failure in JCPenney. The third will discuss Enjoy.com.

Three take aways

  1. Failure analysis helps us succeed, sometimes beyond competitors,
  2. History illustrates how failures led to dramatic management changes, and
  3. Investors could have anticipated Ron Johnson’s failures at JCPenney.


  • Max Chafkin, “How Failed JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson Is Redeeming Himself With Enjoy,” Fast Company (October 26, 2015).
  • Noel Tichy, “J.C. Penney and the terrible costs of hiring an outsider CEO,” Fortune (November 13, 2014).
  • Phil Wahba, “Ron Johnson says J.C. Penney should have stuck to his plan ,” Fortune (May 16, 2016).
  • Jennifer Reingold, “How to Fail in Business While Really, Really Trying,” Fortune (March 20, 2014).
  • Taiichi Ohno, Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production, 1988.



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