A brief reply to Starbucks’ Jonathan M.

After I wrote about the Taylorism in Starbucks new “lean thinking” program the other day, I sent my post to the Investor Relations and Press Relations contacts listed on the Starbucks website and asked them to pass it along to “Vice President of Lean Thinking” Scott Heydon and CEO Howard Schultz. I doubted that would happen; but I thought the company might respond with a prepared statement about Lean Management, and from it I could learn a little more about what Starbucks is really trying to accomplish. And maybe, I thought, I might goad somebody at Starbucks into a conversation or exchange about Taylorism.

That was naïve, or presumptuous; in any case, I was wrong. Apparently neither department found anything in my post deserving a response – I guess Starbucks doesn’t consider my blog a form of press coverage and doesn’t think anything I say could ever affect their stock price — so they forwarded my email, with a link to my post, to Customer Relations.

About a week later, this reply, from a certain “Jonathan M.,” arrived:

I would first like to apologize for my delay in getting back to you. I truly appreciate your patience. We have been very busy recently and I’m sorry that’s caused you to wait so long for my response.
I read your entire article.
To be completely honest with you, I really liked it. Having worked with the Lean team myself (this is true), some of the things you said really struck a chord with me. I’m glad to pass along what you said to the people in our company who make these decisions.
To speak directly to what you said in your article:
This is a diverse company. The thousands of hard working people who make up this company harbor a wide range of ideas and principles they bring to the table when it comes to business. This is a point we pride ourselves on.
I listened to and fully understand your criticisms of the Lean program.
It does make a difference you shared your feedback because we do have channels in place to affect change in our company when our customers let us know that’s what they want.
Our business, like anything else in life, is, simply put, not an exact science. We’re always looking for ways to improve. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, customers, and employees to do this.
Lean has helped us in many ways to do what we do more efficiently, but, if you have criticisms for Lean, then we’re open to that too.
I hope you feel this e-mail has spoken to the concerns you raised in your article. If not (or in any case) feel free to write back and let me know. In closing, I’d like to mention the anecdote you ended your article on, the one about the employees giving directions in New York, was well used in making your point.
Warm Regards,
Jonathan M.
Customer Relations
Starbucks Coffee Company
800 23-LATTE (235-2883)
Monday through Friday, 5AM to 6PM (PST)
p.s. I’d really like to know how my response met your needs; click here if you’d be willing to share your thoughts in a brief survey.

Let’s put last things first, Jonathan. It seems only appropriate, because we find ourselves in a preposterous situation. Here you are, having to respond not to a usual customer complaint – my coffee was cold, the Gents was dirty, the barista was rude – but to a blog post that is ultimately about the difficulty of instituting a social science or a scientific approach to the social. And you get it. “Our business,” you write, “like anything else in life, is, simply put, not an exact science.” No, your business is not an exact science, and no business is or, I would add, should be. But you can’t really expand on that thought or dwell on it; you can’t really explore what that thought might mean when it comes to Scott Heydon and his Taylorist pursuits: the stopwatches, the spaghetti diagrams, the pretensions to knowledge about the right ratio of motion to work. Though you admit that some of my points “struck a chord” with you, and you appreciate my use of anecdote, and you seem to have a philosophical spirit, you, Jonathan M., have a regimen to follow, a Customer Relations protocol, and you do your best to follow it.

Which brings me to the last thing you mention, in the post-script to your letter: the request that I fill out a survey. Looks like you almost forgot to ask! Thank goodness for the post-script. Apparently there is no science to letter writing either. We always leave something out, always forget to say something, always have an after-thought, or a regret; it is amazing we can send email all day, and not be consumed by remorse or always embarrassed by the things we forget to mention. I nearly am, every day, every time I write, but I manage to soldier on. I guess all writing is like that; maybe that makes writing like life, or life like writing. But then look at your “p.s.”: it seems like a post-script, an after-thought, a little accident or addition, but I strongly suspect it is the least accidental thing in your response: it’s clearly from a Starbucks template or a Customer Relations protocol. (And I wonder if you or the people who instituted the protocol came up with the clever device of lowercase “p.s.,” to make it seem all the more casual?)

How can I be so certain that your post-script is not a genuine afterthought, but part of a corporate protocol? Because a couple of days after you responded to me, I received this response, from a certain “Liz B.”

Hello Louis,
Thank you so much for taking the time to write to us. I have apssed along your feedback as requested.
I want you to know that we take feedback from our loyal customers seriously. Because you know better than anyone else what you want from Starbucks, I will share this with the appropriate department here in our corporate office.
We have made a promise to our customers to provide outstanding products and service. I know that this is a primary reason why you visit Starbucks and I understand how disappointing it is when we let you down.
Thank you so much Louis, for giving us the opportunity to improve what we do.
If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know.
Thanks again,
Liz B.
Customer Relations
Starbucks Coffee Company
800 23-LATTE (235-2883)
Monday through Friday, 5AM to 6PM (PST)
Share your ideas at http://www.mystarbucksidea.com
p.s. I’d really like to know how my response met your needs; click here if you’d be willing to share your thoughts in a brief survey.

I guess Investor Relations and Press Relations didn’t bother coordinating before they forwarded my link to Customer Relations. It seems odd that in a company like yours, dedicated, as you and Liz B. both say, to continuous improvement, you wouldn’t have some more efficient way of coordinating your responses to incoming mail. Apparently you folks could use a little of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorism right there on the frontlines of Customer Relations. Too much motion, not enough work! Maybe when Heydon is done with the baristas he can turn his attention to that little tangle.

But unlike Liz B., who makes it clear that she is only a front for people within the company who have opinions and make decisions, you are struggling mightily here to say something – anything – within the silly confines of this Starbucks protocol, and you really do seem inclined to serious conversation. But a brief survey isn’t going to do it, or even allow me to say whether your “response met my needs.” My needs? I want to have a conversation about the tension between “science” and the “social,” and I want to know how and why a company like yours becomes captive to Taylorism, quasi-Japanese management theories, and other bad ideas. And the only way to do that is for you to put the Customer Relations protocol aside, and have a real conversation. We could do that if you would provide me with a little more information about how to reach you — like a last name, for starters, and a real telephone number, not an 800 number that ends with LATTE (I seriously doubt that’s your direct extension, and that you share an extension with Liz B.), and maybe some assurance that we can resolve these thorny issues without involving, say, Howard Schultz or Scott Heydon, or any of the other “people in [your] company who make these decisions.”

I don’t mean to disparage you or not take you seriously. You say you are acquainted with the Lean program; you even add, as if I would doubt you, “this is true” — which of course makes me doubt you. And if I read you right, you want to indicate that you are not to be counted among the program’s big boosters. The problem is, it doesn’t much matter that Starbucks “is a diverse company” or that “the thousands of hard working people who make up this company harbor a wide range of ideas and principles they bring to the table when it comes to business.” Maybe this is a point of “pride,” but it really doesn’t affect how Starbucks goes to business, and it feels a little like the disingenuous use of the word “partner” to describe a barista: phony empowerment.

After all, the only “ideas and principles” that matter to the future of your company are those being advanced by the people who have the power to advance them; everybody can “bring” their ideas to “the table,” but only a few people get a seat. And that’s the trouble, in my view: those few very powerful people are currently espousing some very bad ideas (which is why I — naively — thought Investor Relations might take an interest in my comments). Bad ideas, and bad in a couple of senses: bad for the coffee business, because they mistake the running of coffeehouses for the serving of fast food; and bad in another, more important sense, because Taylorism, even when it’s dressed up as fancy imported “thinking” from Japan, is a pernicious doctrine. Given the historical record, I might go so far as to say that it’s an inhumane and downright evil doctrine, a part of the intellectual and historical legacy of the twentieth century with which we all have to grapple daily and against which we can all struggle by ignoring its protocols. Work alone will not make us free.

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