Management in your mocha, a Taylorist in your tea

Back in the early spring of 2008, I wrote about Howard Schultz’s plan to shut down all Starbucks retail stores for a day-long training exercise. Apparently the Starbucks CEO was convinced that his sagging stock price must somehow be the fault of his employees, or at least could be improved if his employees were only better trained in the Starbucks way.

It was only a passing reference. I was half-seriously wondering if Schultz’s decision had inspired Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, in a caffeine-deprived moment, to write a clumsy email announcing that he’d be shutting down Chrysler’s plants for a full month in the summer of 2008. We now know how all that turned out. Nardelli was trying to save a sinking ship, and couldn’t. Fiat now controls Chrysler; Marchionne has supplanted Nardelli. And Starbucks? Schultz is still in charge; and the company’s fortunes seem to have improved, but only a little. Starbucks was able to beat analysts’ expectations for the third quarter, largely through cost-cutting measures.

And management is once again going back to the baristas, whose performance at the counter has come under fresh scrutiny. That’s because a big part of this new cost-cutting approach has to do with making coffee service at Starbucks more efficient. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the other day focused on Starbucks use of Japanese “lean” management techniques, applying the sorts of “scientific” management approaches in their coffee shops one usually finds on manufacturing floors.

The new emphasis at Starbucks on making their business “lean” is inspired by manufacturing improvements at Toyota, and it all comes down to reducing the amount of time baristas spend going through the motions of getting you coffee: “Motion and work are two different things,” says Starbucks’ Scott Heydon. “Thirty percent of the partners’ time” — partners is a word Starbucks uses to describe its counter-help – “is motion, the walking, reaching, bending.”

(Heydon styles himself the “Vice President of Lean Thinking,” and I suppose that makes for a fun business card. But whenever someone has a title like that, odds are he works at a vastly over-managed company that has lost sight of its core business – or at least has mistaken the business of management for management of the business.)

Of course, another word for “lean thinking,” as Heydon practices it, is Taylorism. There’s really nothing all that Japanese about it. Management teams travel to Starbucks locations around the country, armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head doll. (I’m not making this up.) They teach the virtue of efficiency by asking store managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head doll, and then to improve on their own performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work.

The Taylorists then apply the same tests to the fetching of coffee or the grinding of beans; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to document confused movements behind the counter or divigations across the shop floor; and they prescribe new, more efficient coordinations of action.

The objective of these rites and mysteries, we are told, is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that’s obviously management double-speak; the objective here is to sell more coffee and coffee drinks and other Starbucks stuff, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but one barista from Minneapolis just thinks Mr. Heydon and the Taylorists plan to turn the workers into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. After all, the most efficient Starbucks would be a Starbucks free of slackers behind the counter – an Automat, with espresso drinks served up by mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.

It’s clear that some very powerful people at Starbucks decided a while back that the coffee business is really the fast-food business. In so doing they lost sight of, or consciously jettisoned, some basic truths about coffee and cafes. The most important of these is that coffee is a social beverage. You don’t need to go to Vienna or study the history of coffeehouses to understand this; just drive out to the suburbs, where very often the Starbucks is the only place in town – or in the strip mall – where people can plan to meet.

The Taylorist approach to coffee preparation and service makes much more sense if you are serving coffee at a drive-up window. It does for coffee what the fast food joints did for the meal – strip it of its sociability and make it something to be consumed on the go. That’s not exactly conducive to making the coffee shop a place where people want to gather. And if you go this route, you have to assume that all of your customers are going to be Taylorist in their pursuit of coffee – that, for them, coffee is a fix. The very idea is offensive.

Starbucks is not alone in this regard. Apparently even Mom and Pop coffeehouses are now discouraging wifi use during the day because online customers tend to linger. This is not a welcome trend. To sit in a coffeehouse working, or talking with a friend or reading a book – or, better, talking about a book with a friend — is to feel oneself a part of the civilized world.

On my way to a meeting in Chelsea the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorist experiment. There wasn’t much of a line – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? — so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, he said, a doppio. (But he said it like, dopey-o.) Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. He turned and communicated something inaudible to the young woman working the espresso machine. She looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, she said. I guess she was just starting. Another woman came over and took her through it, and as she was doing that and I took my change from the clerk, I chimed in from my side of the counter: and not too much foam. Just a dab.

This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: even if the woman at the espresso machine knew how to fill the order, I wasn’t going to let her do it without oversight, because I like my coffee just so. As do most people. In this instance, the rookie barista didn’t even come close to making the coffee I wanted. What I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath.

When I asked if she could take some of the foam out of the cup, she looked confused. The woman who had been training her intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said she’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Just a dab. I was starting to enjoy this. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.

A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the register and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest subway. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the subway system, and he asked what any New Yorker would ask: which train do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which train would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had started. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in New York City, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.

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