More Retail Taylorism (The Whole Story)
Updated 11/17/08 10 PM central
If you have WSJ access, check out today's article “Stores Count Seconds to Trim Labor Costs”. I thought, oh no punitive Taylorism… And sure enough they reference Taylor.
Be sure to see the end of the article about the cashier workarounds. I'll blog more about this tonight with quotes from the article.
Dr. Deming's 11th point read:
a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
Growing up in Detroit, we shopped at Meijer stores. These were basically Super Wal-Marts and Super Targets before either of those existed. Now, they're somewhat in the Lean Blog “Retail Hall of Shame” with Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Ann Taylor stores.
Meijer is using work standards in a way that certainly seems to push “quantity over quality” and might not only piss off some customers but might also alienate their employees. Doesn't seem like a recipe for long-term success.
Meijer has used a consulting firm (a bunch of Industrial Engineers gone bad, I guess) to put this “management” system in place:
Daniel A. Gunther has good reason to keep his checkout line moving at the Meijer Inc. store north of Detroit. A clock starts ticking the instant he scans a customer's first item, and it doesn't shut off until his register spits out a receipt.
To assess his efficiency, the store's computer takes into account everything from the kinds of merchandise he's bagging to how his customers are paying. Each week, he gets scored. If he falls below 95% of the baseline score too many times, the 185-store megastore chain, based in Walker, Mich., is likely to bounce him to a lower-paying job, or fire him.
If you're too slow — you're FIRED! That's straight out of the famous “I Love Lucy” candy factory clip. That counts as management “innovation”?? To be fair, the article points out that managers first attempt to give additional training to “slow” employees before leaping to firing them. How progressive of them!
Some customers appreciate the focus on efficiency and speed. I mean, who likes waiting in long lines? But, you can take efficiency and speed too far if you're not also looking at customer service.
Interviews with cashiers at 16 Meijer stores suggest that its system has spurred many to hurry up — and has dialed up stress levels along the way. Mr. Gunther, who is 22 years old, says he recently told a longtime customer that he couldn't chat with her anymore during checkout because he was being timed. “I was told to get people in and out,” he says. Other cashiers say they avoid eye contact with shoppers and generally hurry along older or infirm customers who might take longer to unload carts and count money.
It's not just me who doesn't like systems like this:
“If it is the type of job where you can lay out every element of the job, then you might get more output per hour” using such a system, says Barry Hirsch, a labor professor in the economics department at Georgia State University. “But if it is a job that requires things that can't be quantified — special effort for a customer, or just being friendly — then delineating things too carefully for how employees behave can decrease productivity, because you're just so focused on working to precise guidelines.”
The overall aystem employed at Meijer is called “labor waste elimination.” Speeding people up, or pressuring them to work faster, and not letting them focus on quality and service isn't really waste reduction. The only true example of waste reduction in the article:
… added fingerprint readers to cash registers so cashiers can sign in for work directly at their registers, not at a time clock, “saving minutes of wasted time,” says Roy Smith Jr., the former director of Meijer's Benton Harbor, Mich., store.
Steps saved… now that's actually an example of eliminating the “waste of motion.”
So as I was reading this, I started to think “well how do people work around the system?” There's always a way… people are very clever at working around quota systems and “gaming the system.” Sure enough… right at the end of the article:
Ms. Barry, the DeWitt cashier, who says her weekly score usually hits or exceeds the baseline, admits to using a few tricks to improve her times. She makes heavy use of the register's “suspend button,” which stops the clock. The system detects when remote scanning guns are used, automatically allowing slightly more time to scan big items that stay in the cart. Ms. Barry sometimes uses the remote scanner for nonbulky merchandise.
“It is pretty much survival,” she says. “You have to learn the tricks of the trade.”
Ms. Barry probably wishes she hadn't admitted that in a major publication. Not very good for “survival” I'd bet. So much for that workaround. Thanks for ruining that workaround for your co-workers!!
It's a sad form of management when you rely on using work standards to punish employees. Work standards and even the Lean/TPS concept of “takt time” don't necessarily have to violate the “respect for people” principle. Having an expected time to complete a task isn't necessarily bad if it's used for planning purposes and to determine optimal staffing. But when you use quotas or time standards in punative ways, that's where it runs the risk of being degrading and also runs the risk of destroying quality and the customer experience. When will people learn?
As with the recent “office 5S” story, is the WSJ highlighting Meijer's practices because they're funny and absurd, or because this is considered a good business practice that should be followed??
A list of stores that use similar systems (if you want to avoid them) include:
Funny, last time I was in an Office Depot, me and the other four customers who wanted to pay had ZERO checkout people. So after standing there for a minute, I put my product down and stomped out, going to the nearby Staples. So much for labor efficiency! I'm sure the store was hitting some sort of financial labor efficiency metric. Of course when you have zero revenue, the “hours per sale” metric hits infinity…. D'Oh!