As if working at Starbucks wasn’t hard enough already.

15 10 2010

Even though I don’t drink coffee, I find Starbucks fascinating. I think it’s the fact that I know there’ll be a comfy chair in any major American city where they won’t kick me out while I’m reading that makes my feelings toward the company more positive than negative, but I still have great sympathy for the people who work there.

This (via Andrew Sullivan) isn’t going to make their lives any easier:

Starbucks Corp. is telling its harried baristas to slow down—which may result in longer lines.

Amid customer complaints that the Seattle-based coffee chain has reduced the fine art of coffee making to a mechanized process with all the romance of an assembly line, Starbucks baristas are being told to stop making multiple drinks at the same time and focus instead on no more than two drinks at a time—starting a second one while finishing the first, according to company documents reviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal.

On the one hand, I should applaud the fact that the soy chi tea lattes I’ll get will now likely be better across the board. More remarkably, this might be the first time in American labor history that any kind of assembly line is being deliberately slowed down. Megan McArdle (via Sullivan again), explains the broader problem in industrial relations here:

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.

Quality over quantity (with no change in price)! What’s not to like? It’s that waiting. I’ve heard enough snippy customers in my time there reading that I fear greatly for the sanity of the average barista.



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