A recent visit to the local Starbucks near Penn Station was a wonderful illustration of Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s theory of constraints – and a great example for how important real process management is. What was intended to be a reward (a medium café latte with an extra shot of espresso – or in Starbucks lingo, a triple grande latte) turned into a 25 minute case study of what not to do.

I should have known there were problems from the get go: besides the usual line of maybe five people ahead of me, there was an employee with reindeer headgear taking advance orders. While it might seem like a good idea to give the baristas a heads-up, the unintended consequence is that now the customer has to repeat his order to the cashier. And how can we be sure that what has been ordered in advance will match what we pay for at the cashier?

Having paid a bit more than five bucks, I moved toward the counter where surely my triple grande latte would arrive shortly. Unfortunately, “only one espresso machine is working,” an employee explains repeatedly to the increasing number of people impatiently waiting for their beverage. A lonely barista behind the only working espresso machine bravely tries to keep up with the orders, but it is hopeless. With three cashiers taking orders, the barista is Herbie – the famous overweight kid with the large backpack from Goldratt’s The Goal – who slowed everybody down.

There is a bottleneck in the operation – orders are starting to pile up. What makes things worse for our barista is that not only does she need to churn out espresso shots at a rapid pace – she also needs to respond to a lot of customers asking status inquiries. The customers have reason to be concerned – at least one in five drinks showing up fails to find a taker – and is ultimately flushed down the drain.

After twenty minutes of waiting, I cannot help myself – I step up to the counter. I ask the person whose job it is to hand the beverages to the customer whether he could check up on my latte. He turns around and asks the busy barista whether she has an order for a triple grande latte. She does not seem sure and is too busy to check.

A few minutes later the beverage arrives, and 25 minutes after I gave into my craving for coffee, I emerge from the crowded Starbucks, where at least 15 people wait for their beverage and another 15 people stand in line at the cashier. While nobody seems quite ready to abandon their quest for caffeine, one can sense a growing level of anger rising up.

Looking at the experience from a process angle, one can see problems everywhere. With only one machine running, capacity is down 50 percent – obviously not enough to cope with the demand – so the espresso machine (and its operator, the barista) become the bottleneck. The advance order taker is an ineffective bandage and causes more problems than it solves – when there is a backlog of orders, taking new orders earlier does nothing to reduce the wait time, only increases confusion. As the backlog of orders grows, so does the number of customer inquiries, which results in duplicate orders and more confusion behind the counter. As a result, customers wait and Starbucks potentially loses sales, as some prospective customers are dissuaded by the long line and many of those who placed orders regret their purchase decision.

What happened at Starbucks on 7th Avenue happens every day, all over the world, in all kinds of companies: poorly designed processes break down. Employees try to solve the problem but tackle symptoms instead of root causes. Performance deteriorates further, employees start to fight fires, wait times increase and customers leave. Herbie is alive and well, I saw him at the Starbucks on 7th Avenue.

How could Starbucks use process thinking to fix the problem? The theory of constraints points us toward the bottleneck – the lone espresso machine and its lone barista trying to deal with a flood of orders. With one machine down, capacity is constrained, with the equipment being the “hard” constraint – there is a limit as to how many espresso shots the machine can crank out each minute. The “soft” constraint is the lone barista – one could picture a quick fix with two employees manning the machine, one churning out espresso shots, the other one foaming milk. Understanding the true capacity of the bottleneck and using that information to send excess demand to other Starbucks locations would be a better use of the advance order taker. Simple solutions become obvious once we look at the customer experience from a process angle.

About the Author