The Lean Buzz at Starbucks

In the past when the training venue was not close to gemba, I have used a trip to the Starbucks as a teaching tool for value stream mapping, waste observation, even drawing spaghetti diagrams. Based on the news in the Wall Street Journal article Latest Starbucks Buzzword: ‘Lean’ Japanese Techniques my days of borrowing the Starbucks gemba as a lean learning lab may be numbered.

Under a new initiative being put into practice at its more than 11,000 U.S. stores, there will be no more bending over to scoop coffee from below the counter, no more idle moments waiting for expired coffee to drain and no more dillydallying at the pastry case.

The interactive picture on the Wall Street Journal website gives examples of color coding, point of use placement of materials, The Starbucks cafe lean retail effort is being led by Scott Heydon the “vice president of lean thinking” according to the WSJ article.

Mr. Heydon says reducing waste will free up time for baristas — or “partners,” as the company calls them — to interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience. “Motion and work are two different things. Thirty percent of the partners’ time is motion; the walking, reaching, bending,” he says.

It’s great that people will no longer have to bend, search, reach, and walk. But what does it mean to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience”? Do customers really want this? Will they walk over to my table and chat with me? Or perhaps spend a few more moments getting to know me in the seconds they have shaved off by reducing wasted motion?

If Starbucks can reduce the time each employee spends making a drink, he says, the company could make more drinks with the same number of workers or have fewer workers.

So it seems to be about headcount and saving on some of the $2.5 billion in labor cost of the 176,000 baristas that work at Starbucks stores around the country. Like any other company these days, this is the type of news they want Wall Street and their investors to hear about.

Hopefully the Starbucks Coffee Company is not just applying Taylorism to the process of making coffee. The WSJ article states that the workers are encouraged to come up with solutions unique to the store since the layouts and resulting work flows are different. That’s an encouraging sign that Starbucks sees the value in engaging the young minds working behind the counter to kaizen – the continuous improvement process. As with much of service industry and particularly retail labor, there is a lot of energy and creativity in the minds of the people working in Starbucks that has been untapped. The process of making coffee, retrieving a pastry, serving these and collecting the cash is fairly simple. I can’t see dramatic year-on-year improvements in these processes. These time and motion-focused improvement efforts should be shifted towards more holistic, team-based kaizen activity for customer experience improvement, reducing wasted energy, reduced wasted materials and lessening environmental impact. That would be more in line with Starbucks Coffee Company founder’s intent.

1 Comment

  1. greg

    August 4, 2009 - 1:06 pm

    Great. They can make more crap coffee with greater efficiency. Lovely.