Au Bon Pain is not French for "Stop the Line"

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 30: People sit at  the original Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square July 30, 2009 Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Square is a large triangular area located in the heart of Cambridge and adjacent to Harvard University, and is frequented by tens of thousands of tourists a year, and home to thousand of students with MIT University just down the road. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

I had an interesting encounter at the Kendall Square Au Bon Pain yesterday morning. Not a bad customer experience, but something I noticed in the checkout process that might be worth discussing.

I had a bagel sandwich (wasbai salmon on multi-grain bagel) and brought the sandwich, with the order ticket, to the register.

The cashier started to ring it up and apparently made an error — she rang it up as a bagel, plain bagel. The cost for that is about $1.06 where the bagel sandwich must be about $4.

She sort of muttered and said, “Oh, I don't want to do a void out, so here you go.” To set context, it wasn't really THAT crowded where an angry mob would have formed (there were multiple register stations feeding from a single queue).

Here was a classic opportunity, in a Toyota or Lean sense, for her to “pull the andon cord.” She had a problem — misrang customer order. It was EASIER, apparently, for her to just give me the sandwich, losing $3 in company revenue.

If the tradeoff was “$3 isn't worth it, let's keep the customers moving,” then maybe that's an OK decision. But is that decision approved as “standardized work?” Does she have the judgment to make that decision?

Or, was the whole thing a workaround?? I'm sure voiding the order requires a manager override (a theft-prevention measure, I'm sure) and that either takes too much time or it gets them a reprimand for making the error?

Wouldn't it be the case, if Toyota ran this, that she would have a “help” button (an andon cord of sorts), where the team leader would be there immediately to resolve the problem right then and without any bad attitude? Then, maybe they would do some training or root cause problem solving to reduce her error rate in ringing up orders? Or maybe there's a problem with the register?

I'm sure the reaction at Au Bon Pain was to just move on and never think about that transaction again. Typical of most organizations?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleInterviewed for articles in "Becker’s Hospital Review"
Next articleSilver Bullets and Easy Answers — Always Appealing
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. On Twitter:

    @asplake @leanblog perhaps they were happy to "waste" $3 on winning a loyal customer?

    My impression was that she was motivated by not having to deal with the hassle of doing the void, it didn't seem real focused on "oh this will make the customer happy" even as a side effect.

    My impression.

  2. Mark- Fun example. What if there was a way to better poke yoke the process though automation. Possibly a void button with a reason code or a handheld device for the supervisor to override remotely. Sounds like an Ishikawa diagram in that making leading to some good standard work.

    On a personal note, I worked for ABP about 15 years ago while in college. I'd hope that the systems have improved but I recall that an associated required a supervisor with a key to create a void action. The shop was at Pittsburgh International Airport and customer demand was based on flight arrival times which all seemed to occur at the same time. Just picture very long lines. The supervisor would shift between different stations to help where needed but difficult to secure this person for a void.


  3. Another question — what value does the supervisor bring to the void process?

    I also remember a recent experience at Lowes where a manager had to trudge over and just hit some code.

    Would that have really prevented fraud? Hard to see.

    If the point is fraud detection, couldn't a daily/shift report of # of overrides and $ value of overrides give that information?

    From what I saw, the supervisor involvement at Lowes only slowed the process down.

    Reminds of me of manager approvals that some hospitals get rid of in the name of Lean. If a manager signs off on something 100% of the time, why require the sign off?

    Do the Lowes or ABP supervisors ever NOT approve an override?

  4. "Would that have really prevented fraud? Hard to see.

    If the point is fraud detection, couldn't a daily/shift report of # of overrides and $ value of overrides give that information?"


    While I agree in principle, it's hard to ignore the fact that retailers lose billions each year due to fraud and mistakes at the POS. Workers who are determined to steal or help others steal (as part of an organized crime group) learn to work around the system very quickly. Thus, to play it safe, many retailers simply require a supervisor's intervention for voids/returns.

    That said, I agree that standardized work and training help mitigate the occurence of mistakes by honest workers, and more efficient POS systems help speed up the checkout process while preventing malicious intent to steal. In some cases, good retailers and fast food chains have managers/supervisors that closely monitor the checkout area and quickly respond to any void/return situation that may delay the customer and those waiting behind her. Running across the store, as in your example, is not a good practice.

  5. Hi. In TPS the operator has the right to scrap an item; throw it into a big red box (5 years ago). Modern day is to place it in full view on its own single-piece cart. Either way the scraps are added up at the end of the shift and posted on the BIG visual control board where the opeators can also place notes/ reasons and PDCA (countermeasures to achieve the target). I.e. continuous people engagement is embedded into Visual Management.
    Mike Davis.

  6. I work at Au Bon Pain, and the way they make us do voids is not like at other places. It’s not done then and there. We have to keep the receipt of the original transaction we messed up on, then staple the correct order to the back and keep them at our registers. Then, at the end of our shifts, before they do “cashier close” on the register, they do each void one at a time. So it’s less of a hassle dor us to just not to the void and give you the item. We also have to count our own drawers at the end, then the manager veries the amount. Voids can bring us unintentionally under or over if we lose the receipt slip. Hope this explanation helps.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.