Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Too Many Cooks?

This morning I headed to the local bagel shop for my daily breakfast. This is typically a frustrating affair, as the toasted bagel and orange juice I order often takes five, ten or even fifteen minutes to be delivered. Worse, I noticed the variance in delivery times of my order had absolutely nothing to do with the volume of customers in the store at any given time, and there were usually five people “working” behind the counter – a chaotic ensemble of poorly trained, ill-managed, customer-averse ne’er do wells. IMHO.

But today was different. Today, there were three workers in the entire store, and no obvious reduction in the number of customers. I walked up to the counter and within seconds was asked for my order. I shuffled to the left toward the register, and right on queue came a second worker who grabbed me an orange juice and rang up my order. Markedly absent was the usual slip of paper that included my order, formerly filled out by one of the workers and handed to me for presentation to the cashier. Instead, the order was taken and the work begun as soon as I finished my request. I was out of there, toasted bagel and all, in less than three minutes. Same number of customers, fewer workers, no paperwork, less waiting time. Why?

Today’s experience illustrated the benefits of good management, and the folly of knee-jerk attempts to fix broken processes. Many times throughout my career I’ve seen ill-prepared managers try to deal with volume increases by adding staff, rather than taking a hard look at the process and the training, motivation and workflow associated with it. The “throw more bodies at the problem” approach always fails: overhead is increased and the process actually slows down. Yet, this is the way most inexperienced or under-skilled managers deal with expansion. The paperwork (i.e., order slip), no longer needed, had undoubtedly been added previously to better differentiate the work among so many hands.

The next time you’re in a similar situation, take note of the process the people are following. There’s a lot information there; unfortunately, many times you get a lesson in what not to do. Today’s experience was heartening – let’s hope the good experience continues, if only for the sake of my impatient stomach.

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