Starbucks Strategy: Time and Motion Studies Now

Starbucks is trying to help its staff members be more efficient.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, they are using old fashioned time and motion studies.  A barista makes a latte, while someone watches with a stopwatch.  Early results are positive, but some baristas worry that this push for efficiency will take away from the coffee-crafting experience.

The Starbucks experience is a part of the charm of the chain, but don't forget the coffee, or that many of us don't want to wait in line.  The Starbucks experience is not about watching someone fumble to find the whipped cream. If the barista can save five seconds by having ingredients located in the right place, then burn off one or two of those seconds with a smile or flourish, then efficiency and the Starbucks experience are both served.

I had the pleasure of spending two hours with one of the top Internet marketing experts.  He says that everyone who survives that business is continually doing "A B testing."  That is, they have their "A" ad, which has proved successful.  But they are also showing a "B" ad, trying out new ideas.  The B ad may only get 5 percent of the impressions, but it keeps the A ad on its toes.  When a B ad surpasses the old A ad, then it gets promoted.  Do the marketers slap each others' butts and call it a day?  Of course not–they have to write a new "B" ad.

If there's anything weird about Starbucks jumping into this efficiency thing it's this: haven't they been doing this continuously for years?  Jeez, it's basic Total Quality Management. This is a basic element of the trial and error economy:  continually test your procedures, looking for room for improvement.

When I was young, I thought that a boss should tell employees what is expected of them, then leave them alone to work out the details themselves.  Boy, was I ever stupid. I learned the error of my ways racing my boat.  I sail a small boat with two other people, and I used to explain the desired results and wait for my crew to figure it out.  And waited.  And waited.  The new, hard ass me is different.  I specify exactly how each step is to be done.  No changes, no suggestions, no variation.  We always do the jibe this way.  After a crew member has mastered the task and gotten some experience, I am very open to suggestion.  When we're out practicing, we can try another way and see how it works.  We watch our competitors, read articles, and try to improve.  But first, we master the old ways.

One final thought, as I'm writing this in a Starbucks at the O'Hare airport.  I walked up at a slack time, and there were four employees without a customer.  Talk about a bad environment for customer service.  They didn't want to stop their conversation for me.  True, it was only five seconds or so before they greeted me, but to be a customer who is ignored for any length of time is insulting.    Every business needs to keep their  employees busy.  "My" Starbucks often has a line in the morning, but every employee is focused on getting the orders in, made, and served.  I'd rather wait in line and see the staff hustling to get to me, than to have no line and be ignored.