Steady Work


Transforming frontline operations in a retail chain the size of Starbucks is a story in itself.

Steady Work goes further, investigating how lean thinking addressed huge demand fluctuation in a retail environment across thousands of stores, and then how baristas and managers in Newtown, Connecticut used that system to get them through the worst week imaginable. It is a deeply personal story with global relevance.


December 17, 2012

On Monday morning, Newtown was just as busy as it had been. Or more so. The international press was everywhere, but so were other people—families from all around the state, gathering for the first of the 26 funerals and memorials. People kept talking about how small the caskets were. Emotions were raw.

Yet for many of the store's partners, work had become a respite, they told me. Outside the café, the whole world was grieving and filled with unanswerable questions. When they came to work, however, they knew exactly what to do. Their jobs were clearly defined, easily repeatable sequences. They weren't running into each other, overlapping steps, or missing orders. A kind of calm had taken over as partners focused on their jobs and on providing some degree of comfort in a terrible time.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought more funerals still, but we found that we were not so focused on the high volume of work. It had quickly become routine. Over the course of this week, we would ring up 9,000 transactions—more than double our usual pace. And the actual sales were much higher still, due to the increased volume of food and beverage sold with each order.

Looking back on it, I now realize with some surprise that I never asked for permission to carry out my decisions that week. Closing the Danbury store for a day and a half, moving a crew over from New York to fill in, dramatically increasing the number of people working shifts in the Newtown store—I informed my boss about what we were doing but never asked permission. And even though Newtown was at the center of the entire country's attention, nobody from Seattle stepped in to tell me what I should do. Howard Shultz and others called to offer assistance but not direction.

I think it is human nature for people to jump in during a crisis and try to grab the reins. In fact, I have to admit that if this had happened in a pre-Playbook time, I probably would have micromanaged everything. I certainly would have thrown a lot more people into the mix. I would not have known what the right resources were and so would have acted emotionally and erred on the side of extra help. Then I would have offered a lot of instructions for all of those baristas tripping over each other, and it probably would have been a well-meaning disaster.

Playbook worked well because it made standard work of important business decisions. As long as you followed the formulas based on the POS data and truly understood the time it took to do the work, you would have the right number of people working. And the habit of daily team-based problem solving built up our capability to handle a cascade of issues coming at us all at once.

In this case, Playbook was a champion because decisions that were difficult to make in the moment had already been made for us. When we were stressed in every way, we trusted the operating system to be our guide.

Also, at no point did we have to stop and worry about whether we were making a profit. Even though we were throwing a lot of extra resources at the Newtown store, I knew that the balance sheet would work out. Balanced productivity was baked into every play.

But the most important aspect of the operating system was that it supported the frontline partners. In that awful week, standardized work was not a yoke; it was a comfort. It gave us breathing room. It guided us to synchronize our efforts and work as one. It took away the dozens of exhausting little decisions we make on the job and provided certainty.