Steady Work

Steady Work, by Karen Gaudet with Emily Adams, Lean Enterprise Institute, Boston, 2019 

Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story.


When author Karen Gaudet heard what was happening in Newtown, Connecticut after a school shooter killed 20 children, staffers and teachers, it hurt.   Gaudet knew from experience - working her way through the food service industry, then graduating to Starbucks' management, what it meant to produce steady work, consistently predictable and measurable results in the face of ridiculously uneven demand, the perfect systems conflict set-up.


But first, visualize 87000 different espresso coffee combinations, - lattes, espressos, mocha lattes, frappuccino grandes.  Nearly every customer had a special preference.  As Starbucks grew to seven thousand US stores, one could just about describe a system burdened with too much variety.  Added to that logistics challenge was the human element, a requirement for the stores to match and reflect the local demographic.  How could one tailor a work system to fit each store's unique layout and demand environment?. 


The solution:  Playbook

Playbook is a system derived from classic industrial engineering by way of Toyota's production system.  Although car-making and coffee brewing may seem to be at opposite ends of the methods spectrum, as Starbucks discovered, certain key tools worked well in their labor intensive service environment. The challenge was to provide unlimited variety delivered by humans in a "friendly" and efficient manner.  Results counted not just in profits, but in customer retention and corporate growth.


Corona virus

In Steady Work readers will experience the  often painful and exhausting  routine of a day at Starbucks.  What could we learn from this methods change now as businesses, especially today's virus locked-down restaurant food businesses? Which operations will gradually and successfully  decide to retake a place in our food chain?


We don't know.  When the Newtown, Connecticut store tripled their 500 espresso beverages orders per day to over 1500, could their supply chain have established back-up plans and parameters, much as our hospital systems are now challenged to meet huge and dangerous corona virus patient demands?  There is no doubt that one of the essential elements of the new Playbook system - team engagement and improvement - played a big role in weathering the Newtown crisis. Accurate observation and note-taking played a role, as well as worker engagement, along with proven A3, kaizen, PDCA methods. None of these transformations happen overnight; but the movement from chaos and strain, through best practices, the early Starbucks' Better Way, and finally Playbook started the machine. Along the way, workers got better and better at old fashioned industrial engineering observations and recording of time to perform work, seeing the flows and thinking of a better way, redesigning the work to allow what one worker called "focus," the ability to carry on a detailed conversation while talking to a district manager!  That moment was what convinced author Gaudet that the Playbook system would work.


"The first step in solving a problem is to go see it," she said, modeling classic problem solving.  Although there were "some hiccups and some backsliding, particularly among new employees, still we kept rolling that boulder up the hill."  Gradually, the teams developed a new way of working.  "Playbook worked well because it made standard work of important business decisions, and in that awful week, standardized work was not a yoke, it was a comfort."


Results count

But what did the before and after hardcore numbers say about the change to Playbook? 


    *  Overall customer satisfaction in her region went from  66% to 82%

    *  Productivity measured in transactions per labor hour rose from 9.8 to 13

    *  Barista turnover dropped from 34% to 19%

    *  Internal promotions rose from 50 to 75%


The author offers words of caution, however. Don't count on this kind of change working everywhere.   "The fact is I'm still not sure whether a lean operating system can take root and grow in an organization whose leadership does not actively seek that transformation and support it. 

Patricia E. Moody

FORTUNE magazine  "Pioneering Woman in Mfg" 

IndustryWeek IdeaXchange Xpert

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