Sunday 2 April 2017

Why the queues?

There was a interesting item in the news a few weeks ago regarding a plateauing of sales at the discount food stores, relating to the shopping experience, particularly the often poor queuing process.

Call me sad (!) but I regularly look at the different queuing systems businesses use.  The post office.  The benefits office.  Petrol stations.  Payroll.  Passport office.  Billing departments.  Coffee shops.

The difference between the Starbucks and Caffe Nero - that’s a great one to study.  If you wonder in without looking, you’ll come out a few minutes later with a coffee.  But if you study it, their working practices are very different.  During a training session a years back, I took a team of senior execs to both coffee outlets to take a look - it was a fun way to learn.  Both work OK when under ‘low-load’, but during very busy times, one will fail, and the other continues to work smoothly - can you tell which one?  More on that another time!

Back to the discount stores.  They offer great food, at great value, and seem to have taken the larger, more established businesses by surprise.

So why are the queues long, and the experience so bad?

I’ve seen reasons such as:
 - they need new technology, and
 - there aren’t enough staff on the tills.

I disagree.

So, what’s happening?

When I go through these tills, it feels like the items are flung at me - the bleeps of the till going mad.  My guess: that the local management measure the performance of the staff by the speed of the bleeps.  It’s easy to obtain this data, it’s easy to review this data, it’s easy to compare the team members.  But the customer is forgotten, because the need to get people through the tills has been replaced by the speed of the till bleeps.

And that’s the problem.  The beeps are quick, but then they have to wait for the customer to complete their packing.  A clear case of “hurry-up and wait”!

So, when you study a system, you start to see the world differently, and other possible solutions.

For a start, the objective at the checkout isn’t to bleep as quickly as possible.  Surely the objective is to get customer through the “unload basket, scan, pack, pay, leave” process as soon as possible.  

One simple improvement - when all the items have been scanned (quickly or not) why doesn’t the member of staff help bag-up the items?  A little extra work by the checkout operative, means the customer leaves the shop more quickly.  The point being, the purpose has changed - to helping the customer through the end-to-end process.  There are many other tweaks and changes that can be applied - drop me a line if you’d like to know more.

So, why doesn’t this happen by itself?

Because counting bleeps is easy, and measuring end-to-end throughput is often much harder.  The system is a service production line - it’s generally not viewed like that - and the right data isn’t often easily accessible to make the right decisions. 

So why is it important?  

In the immediate term - there may be no impact - shoppers will still come, buy, and go - getting a little frustrated each time.  It costs no more to help pack - and neither does it save the shop money, so there’s no obvious benefit to them - other than short queues and happy customers…

But longer term, it’s a better customer experience, and won’t impact on potential future sales.  And it’s happening to every customer, in every store, every day - and is being covered in the news.

It’s no different in other similar systems:

  • The benefits office - it usually takes less than 30 minutes to complete a claim, so why do many vulnerable adults have to wait over a month?
  • Passport office - it can only take 20 to 30 minutes to actually process a passport, why then are there occasional delays and backlogs during some summers?
  • Payroll - why do many new employees have delays in their first pay, or leavers get over-paid, or some payroll changes take forever?
  • Coffee shops - some seem to work smoothly, others are chaotic
  • Billing departments - some customers either being billed late, or not at all, with the knock-on effect on cash-flow and debt.

They are production lines, but in the service industry.  And as I’ve said to a number of my clients recently, if the production line was making washing machines, it would be easy to see which ones were broken or wonky - but it’s much harder when the process is ‘hidden’ in computers and paperwork.

Understanding the service production line is vital for great customer service.  It helps remove the re-work - speeding up the end-to-end process.  And re-work is expensive.

This quote seems fitting: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” (CS Lewis).

More queuing blogs to come…