Starbucks Puts Quality Over Quantity

Starbucks is taking a step that at first seems a little odd: the firm has ordered its baristas to slow down.  Instead of grinding the beans at the beginning of the day, they're to recreate a little theater by grinding them fresh for each batch; instead of working on a bunch of drinks at once, they're to handle only two at a time, beginning the next while the previous drink is processing.

The result will be a more consistent coffee experience.  As the company has grown, its struggling with the problem that plagues any organization which tries to scale: controlling worker output so that the customer experience is roughly the same every time.  Naturally, this problem is largest in service organizations.

How they solve it makes a big difference.  Consider Burger King and McDonalds differentiated themselves a few decades ago:  McDonalds maximized throughput with batch cooking, while Burger King relied on a sort of mechanized burger assembly line.  That meant that Burger King's product was more consistent, and could be more easily customized, since they arrived in a continuous stream rather than all at once; that's why they emphasized that you could "have it your way".  Among other things, this made labor quality less important, because the machine, not the worker, cooked the burgers.  

But while the "burger stream" arguably delivered a better hamburger, it also meant throughput was bottlenecked; you got one burger every few seconds, no matter what.  So Burger King tended to deliver a better burger during slow times, but McDonalds could handle the highest volume periods.  In burgers, it turned out that volume mattered more than the ability to have exactly the burger you wanted.

In this case, Starbucks seems to be choosing quality--or at least, standardization of quality--over speed.  As with Burger King, this is going to have some unwanted side effects.  What Starbucks would really like is simply to be able to say "make a latte this way every single time", and have thousands of baristas hop to."  But anyone who has ever managed employees knows that this isn't quite so easy as it sounds.  Even with the cleverest and most motivated employees, little changes will creep in over time; when I was a canvass field manager for PIRG, I was always a little astonished to find the varied ways that people had modified the standard "rap" they were supposed to give at each door, often without even realizing that they'd gone off script.  This is why Atul Gawande is so gung-ho on making doctors hew to checklists and hard-to-modify standardized procedures.

Rules, like machines, reduce variance, but they also introduce problems of their own.  As one of the baristas interviewed by the Wall Street Journal points out, it really doesn't make sense for him to stand there and watch a frappucino blend when he could be starting an iced tea.  The problem is, if you make an exception for frappucinos and iced teas, one of two things happens:  you weaken the rule, so that people stop following it when it does make sense; or you create a whole set of rules that are hard to remember, and will break down under the weight of their own complexity.

So Starbucks is sticking with its rule, but that means that many customers will have to wait longer for their drinks.  You get a high-quality latte every time, but you may have to wait five minutes for it.  When the store is empty, this won't matter so much, but during "rush hour", well . . . bring a book.

I'm not so sure this is going to end up being the right strategy for the stores.  Starbucks could get away with lines out the door when they were essentially the only game in town.  But the success of Starbucks has spawned competitors, and it is the rare location where you can't find some other coffee shop not far away.  Is Starbucks so great that you won't defect to Caribou when the lines stretch out the door?

I'm probably not the right person to ask, because I don't care for Starbucks--their overroasting is a good solution to a problem they shouldn't have, namely disguising off-flavors in low-quality coffee beans.  I have no idea how this became the gold standard of coffee in an era when there is so much high-quality stuff on the market.  We'll find out how many people agree with me as the lines stretch out.

The firm, of course, says that this will actually mean customers get their drinks faster, on average--though they seem to be a bit fuzzy on how having baristas make fewer drinks at one time is going to increase their throughput.  Perhaps they'll get some time savings out of reducing mixups, but I doubt it will make up for the time lost by forbidding multitasking.  Starbucks baristas move their product pretty quickly, and with surprising accuracy.  Beware of a company claiming that there are no tradeoffs.  Sometimes it's true, but usually it means they're either lying, or deluded.  In this case, I assume that the management is simply understandably reluctant to announce that they've decided to increase your morning wait.