Starbucks' Misplaced Improvement Effort

Scott Francis
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Starbucks may be doing a lot right these days – they’re stock is up more than 100% from its lows, almost 200%.  But recently they rolled out a change at “my” Starbucks that is a step backwards.  I go to one of the highest volume-per-square-foot Starbucks in Austin, TX.  One of the reasons I go there, despite the fact that it is so busy, is that the staff is by far the most efficient in Austin – for the last 12 years they’ve been cranking through the line faster than any other store in the city, and remember all the regulars’ names and drinks along the way. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to get to the cash register and my drink would be there waiting already made.  I always wondered what happens if I change my order!  But they knew I was a regular and what that meant.  And I got faster service for being that regular – something I might expect to get at a neighborhood cafe, but not at a big national chain.  The baristas there are my friends – I’ve seen them get married and have kids (and, they’ve noticed when I got married, and when I stopped on the way to the hospital after our kids were born, to get coffee after a long night). But the other day, the wheels came off. What happened? It seemed like a little thing – and I’m sure the folks in HQ thought they knew what they were doing – rolling something out to this location that they do at lots of the high volume locations.  They started printing stickers for the cups instead of writing on them with a marker or grease pen. Its the kind of automation that seems to make sense.  It might even make overall throughput slightly better, or error rate slightly lower.  But my observations follow:
  1. They don’t ask my name anymore when I order.  I just order.  The new employees aren’t learning my name.  They aren’t my friends, and aren’t becoming so.  They also don’t know my drink, which is even worse.
  2. My drink doesn’t get started until after I pay.  Sometimes the person making drinks is literally idle because the cashier has gotten behind.  The barista behind the espresso machine no longer jumps the line by making regulars’ drinks in advance.
  3. I spend an extra 5 minutes in the store on average.  It is no longer a quick stop for me on the way to work – its an expensive distraction from getting started with my day.
So, I’m looking at buying an espresso machine for the office.  So, I bought a Nespresso machine for our office.  I won’t have to wait in line, and they won’t have to learn my name or my drink.  Or collect my money when I’m in Austin. Besides just ranting about Starbucks, this is a bit of a cautionary tale – sometimes an “obvious” technology improvement or automation can actually slow things down because it robs the people involved in the process of the independent volition to make a difference – or to delight the customer.  The trick is to introduce tech that enhances that individual ability to execute rather than stifling it.  This is critical for BPM projects especially.  We can’t forget that for all too many of our processes, “delighting the customer” is still a goal.

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  • Wes

    I’m not sure that the transition to labels is the cause of your decline in speedy service. After all, the they could still make your drink sooner if they recognize you as a regular. The problem is more likely that this generation of employees does things exactly as they’re instructed and need mechanical steps to follow. Forethought and customer service are probably unfamiliar to them.

  • Wes

    I’m not sure that the transition to labels is the cause of your decline in speedy service. After all, the they could still make your drink sooner if they recognize you as a regular. The problem is more likely that this generation of employees does things exactly as they’re instructed and need mechanical steps to follow. Forethought and customer service are probably unfamiliar to them.

  • I’m not buying the generational argument (not sure if you meant it as in, current crew of employees, or literally their generation versus, say, our generation? )

    I would say half the people working there were there before labels *and* knew my name and my drink. They were very willing to use forethought and customer service *before* their job got reduced to a mechanical set of steps to follow… but now that it is IS a mechanical job, they’re acting more like it, too. As the ones who know me and my drink rotate out of the store, I’ll be left with two less reasons to return – slower service, and no “personalized attention”.

    IF you’re saying that the current generation is, in general, lazier or less inclined to provide good service, or requiring more mechanical steps… I disagree (and have posted previously about managing the “millenials” etc. ) … Perhaps I disagree with this argument on its face because I remember all too well being told that birth-dearthers (aka me) and gen X (apparently, also me) were too lazy and self-absorbed in self pity and angst to really go out there and do something for the world. But my own observational data told me that this simply was not the case. It was just a case of highly motivated ppl in the older generation noticing that the *average* person in the younger generation was not as motivated. Failing to notice that the average person in their generation isn’t as motivated, nor is the avg person older than they are, etc. Its post-ad-hoc-ergo-proctor-hoc logic. I see the same thought process being applied to millenials or “facebook generation” and again… i’m not buying it. :)

    The other day, I heard a 25yo bitterly complain about how lazy college grads are these days. This, from someone who could have easily been described the same way when they graduated only 3 years earlier…

    “back in my day…” :)

  • I’m not buying the generational argument (not sure if you meant it as in, current crew of employees, or literally their generation versus, say, our generation? )

    I would say half the people working there were there before labels *and* knew my name and my drink. They were very willing to use forethought and customer service *before* their job got reduced to a mechanical set of steps to follow… but now that it is IS a mechanical job, they’re acting more like it, too. As the ones who know me and my drink rotate out of the store, I’ll be left with two less reasons to return – slower service, and no “personalized attention”.

    IF you’re saying that the current generation is, in general, lazier or less inclined to provide good service, or requiring more mechanical steps… I disagree (and have posted previously about managing the “millenials” etc. ) … Perhaps I disagree with this argument on its face because I remember all too well being told that birth-dearthers (aka me) and gen X (apparently, also me) were too lazy and self-absorbed in self pity and angst to really go out there and do something for the world. But my own observational data told me that this simply was not the case. It was just a case of highly motivated ppl in the older generation noticing that the *average* person in the younger generation was not as motivated. Failing to notice that the average person in their generation isn’t as motivated, nor is the avg person older than they are, etc. Its post-ad-hoc-ergo-proctor-hoc logic. I see the same thought process being applied to millenials or “facebook generation” and again… i’m not buying it. :)

    The other day, I heard a 25yo bitterly complain about how lazy college grads are these days. This, from someone who could have easily been described the same way when they graduated only 3 years earlier…

    “back in my day…” :)

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  • Wes

    It wasn't really a complaint about the generations that have come after us. I didn't have all the data that you mentioned – that half the employees used to know your drink is insane. Perhaps they get punished if they don't behave like automatons.

    But yeah, “back in my day…”