I was in New York City on a busy summer weekend not too long ago. Me and a whole lot of other tourists. In fact, it was the busiest I have ever seen the city in terms of tourists.

Saturday night found me and my companions at one end of Times Square, fighting the crowds to enjoy one of my favorite treats: a smoothie. Sunday night was the same, except that we were at the other end of Times Square fighting the crowds to enjoy another one of my favorite treats: ice cream. You’d think the two experiences would have been similar, but in fact they couldn’t have been more different.

First, a little background. For those unlucky folks who have never had a smoothie, they’re a blended mix of roughly 5-6 fresh ingredients like yogurt, sherbet, fruit of various types, juice, ice, etc. Each ingredient type can be customized according to what the customer wants; one order might mix bananas, strawberries, vanilla yogurt, orange sherbet, and ice, while the next might have blueberries, raspberries, oranges, grape juice, plain yogurt, and ice. On top of that, various additives are available, supposedly for extra fiber, extra energy, extra protein, etc. The ingredients are all combined and then blended before being poured into a cup and presented to the customer.

On the surface, the particular ice cream process I experienced was very much the same. Customers select a base ice cream which is then combined 3-4 additives like fruit, chocolate, nuts, various syrups, whipped cream, etc. These ingredients are all mixed and then transferred to a cup or cone and presented to the customer.

In both cases I very much enjoyed the taste of what I got, and in both cases the total price was in the region of $5. But that’s where the similarities ended. My experience as a customer was sharply different.

When I ordered the smoothie, I entered the building and had to wait about 20s to reach a cashier. The cashier asked me my name, and then took my order, which took another 20s. The physical layout then guided me to a small waiting area where additional products and other information were displayed alongside large windows and other diversions. Meanwhile, my custom order was electronically transmitted to a second worker who put the ingredients in a blender cup. This was fast and easy because all the scoops were sized to deliver single portions of solids, while liquids were automatically dispensed in the correct proportion according to the information the cashier had entered. Approximately 120s later, another worker finished blending the smoothie, poured it into a cup, and called me to the counter by name to deliver it. The place was crowded, but the process was designed to handle it and get folks through quickly. They were serving a new customer every 30s or so with almost no lineups. Another entire cell remained empty and un-manned; presumably to accommodate periods of peak demand. Fantastic.

By contrast, ordering the ice cream was nightmare. We had to line up outside just to join the line up inside. No less than three workers were dedicated to managing the flow of people from the outside line to the inside line – and even then, we watched frustrated as several people simply skipped ahead of us to the inside line. Total time in the outside line was about 15min. As we got inside, it became apparent that the physical layout of the store was incredibly bad from flow standpoint. A single, large station took up so much space that the folks who had received their order had to wedge past those still waiting to get out. Menus on the wall were unreadable from a few feet away, necessitating long conversations once the first cashier was reached. That was difficult, because of very loud music and, bizarrely, singing by the staff that seemed to be mandated every couple of minutes. Worse, the cashiers didn’t know the menu at all – ours argued with us about an item that she didn’t believe was on the menu. (We checked, it was.) Total time in the inner lineup was approximately 30min. Once we actually placed our order, a bizarre dance of inefficiency began. The person making the order was apparently supposed to keep in her head the details of four custom orders. She failed at each, having to ask information to be repeated four times. Again, this was very difficult due to the music and singing, to the point where we left with incorrect products because we gave up. She had to run to several different places for the ingredients, causing more than one physical collision with others doing the same. Labels and scoops were unusable in some cases and absent in others. She apologized that at least one of the things we had ordered “tasted really bad.” When it came time to actually pay (why didn’t we pay the first cashier?), we faced a new person who had no idea what we had ordered. So, we had to explain it again…sixth time in the process…did I mention the loud music and singing? The whole experience took just under and hour. The place was crowded but they were only serving a new customer every 5-7 minute. And if those other customers were anything like me, they left not only vowing that they would never come back, but also determined to warn others to avoid the place at all costs as a public service. It was awful.

The smoothie process was, in my opinion, a thing of beauty. They had obviously borrowed heavily from a certain well-known coffee chain, more than one fast-food chain, and probably some others. And they had innovated where necessary. In short, they had done their homework and thought about it. The beautiful details were too numerous to mention…the consistent way they unwrapped the straws without touching anything but the wrapper…the physical flow of material…it all brought a tear to my eye.

The ice cream process made me cry for different reasons. And what bothered me the most about the experience was that so many potential improvements were obvious and easy. It wouldn’t take a process improvement expert to make things much better, it wouldn’t even take money, it would just take someone with some interest, initiative, and a three digit IQ. With a small budget and little bit of knowledge, I bet even the greenest process improvement effort could turn the customer experience around 180 degrees and cut the time down by 80% in a month. The work wouldn’t be hard. Indeed, if they walked a few blocks across Times Square they could learn everything they need to know for free from the smoothie folks.

My question is this: why don’t they do it? Why is the horrid process allowed to persist? The improvements are so easy, so obvious, and so within-reach. The best practices are so well-reported and well-known. Sure, it would take a bit of work and dedication to make the changes, but if they can hire three people to manage two lines, surely they can afford one to get rid of the need for two lines in the first place. Why, oh why, does the bad process continue to exist?

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