My Trip to the Apple Store was Like a Hospital Visit


I generally love the Apple Stores for their customer service and environment, as a primary Mac user for the past four years. You may have read stories about how executives from the Apple Store have been working with Stanford Hospital to create a better environment and experience for patients. It's another fascinating example of taking good ideas from other industries, such as checklists from aviation and Lean management principles from Toyota, and applying them to the betterment of patient care.

Unfortunately, my last Apple Store visit made me think more of a hospital visit… but not in a good way.

After about 16 months of pretty heavy use on my MacBook Air (including much of the writing for my upcoming Healthcare Kaizen), I managed to wear away the period and comma keys, as if small chips had come off the surface of the physical keys. I was afraid these scrapes would possibly damage my screen when the laptop was closed, as I could already see a small mark being left on the screen.


I went to the web to book an appointment with the Genius Bar (OK, that's something you generally can't do with your physician or a specialist). When I arrived, the Genius Bar was running about 20 minutes behind schedule (now that sounds like a doctor's office). They diagnosed the problem (yes, the keys were wearing out, as I had stated) and told me I'd have to come back after they ordered parts.

Unlike my good friend Sami Bahri, DDS  (“The World's First Lean Dentist”), the Apple Store wasn't equipped to take care of my needs in a single visit. It's too bad they couldn't have ordered the replacement parts based on my online assessment, as I would have avoided an additional trip, burning less gas in the process.  That's a minor gripe, I suppose. My MacBook still worked, so I was able to take it home and wait.

A few days later, Apple called to tell me the part was in and I could bring the MacBook in for surgery. What happened when I arrived for that second visit might really remind you of surgery registration or even an emergency room visit.

Triage and Handoffs

I entered the front door and stood in a short queue to talk to the greeter, who was apparently triaging and pointing people to the right direction. I guess I could have gone straight back to the Genius Bar or found another blue-shirted employee, but this seemed to be the process.

After a wait, I explained my situation to the greeter and she told me to go over to the MacBook display table to talk to another employee.

That employee was engaged with another customer, so I stood in another queue. After about five minutes, I again explained why I was there and he said, oh, you need to walk back there and talk to Sean.

I've told my story twice now and I'm still not closer to getting any direct help. Two queues, ten minutes. That guy had trouble explaining how to find Sean — go down “that” aisle. “Which aisle?,” I asked, not understanding his vague directions (there are many aisles in the store). After a little more back and forth, I set out to find the guy with the glasses and the goatee (which could have been other employees).

I made my way back to Sean and I waited again as he wrapped up with another customer. I explained, again, why I was there, and Sean said, “OK, I'll go get so -and-so.”

So the fourth employee came out, and I explained my story again. He asked ,”Did you being your paperwork?”  No, I hadn't, as I don't remember being told that it was necessary to bring the paperwork (things like this happen with hospitals and patients all the time). It turns out it wasn't necessary for me to have brought the paperwork (so why do they ask for it?)

He  took my precious MacBook, and said it would be in surgery for the day (not the words he used) and that they would call me when it was ready to be discharged (picked up).

What Could They do Better?

Hospitals can be really frustrating to navigate for new patients. How many times does a patient have to tell their story in the emergency room or when registering for surgery?

I think the Apple Store experience, while not horrible, could have been easier if there had been a sign that said “drop off repairs here.” You know, visual management. But, that probably doesn't fit their store  aesthetic…

I assume this experience – the multiple triage points, the handoffs, the repetition, and the waste time – are not the sorts of things that Apple is teaching to Stanford! :-)

p.s. Surgery went great and I got my MacBook back the very next day, good as new! So, again, there's an aspect of the experience that went great.

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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. During my classes, I teach that in service processes, hand-offs are the biggest waste. We call them “cess-pools” of waste. Hand-offs are usually the best place for waste and problems to breed, so that is where we always go first!

  2. All to familiar of a story, in person or on the phone. Not sure why more companies don’t take the Ritz-Carlton approach. You hear the problem (though it was not a problem yet), you own it. If the greeter would have walked you through the process, I am sure at least 1-step would have been eliminated, even if it was her first day. And on the 2nd day, anyone would have been taken to the correct person immediately.

    If my memory serves me right, I believe Zingerman’s Deli does it the Ritz way.

  3. Good story. It seems that this is Lean at it’s best AND worst.
    Implementing Lean processes within an organization does not mean that all personnel understand the concept and reasons for implementation. This story seems to fit that model. Personnel were following protocol, however, at the same time, compeltely missing the point or reason for it: customer satisfaction. This can be dealt with.

    I had a similar experience as Mark while working between Apple and ATT stores. Luckily the stores were located within the same mall and only 2 floors from each other. After initiating my request for warranty exchange of an iphone I purchased via my companies ATT service; I was redirected from store to store several times, had to repeat my request several times and wait in line (again) each time. I then finally obtain enough information between the two stores to determine that they could not meet my needs for exchange of my company iphone without taking my phone right then and ordering another for pick up the next day.(new iphones were out of stock)

    This was not the answer nor the customer service I was looking for.

    • There’s nothing at the Apple Store that represents Lean. As far as I know, it’s not part of their operational or improvement methodology.

      In a Lean environment, people would understand their own work AND how it fits into the customer value stream.

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading.

  4. OK. I have to disagree a little with you on that statement Mark.

    While Apple definitely has not implemented Lean methodology, that does not mean that they haven’t implemented some pieces of it (without knowing) that even Lean companies could take as lessons learned and seek to apply these lessons to their own areas. I believe what they are doing with their “triage” of customers in this case is attempting to separate the Value Streams so that problems can be handled at the most appropriate level and with the most appropriate Value Stream. This is absolutely a solid lean concept which many lean companies haven’t mastered.

    I would say that Apple isn’t a LAME company either because they never have claimed to be Lean (that I am aware of).

    So. . . I would say that the Apple Store is not a Lean company, but they are certainly highly visible and have solved some problems in unique ways that we can learn definitely learn from!! (As you can probably tell, I prefer to take the positive spin on situations such as this!) :)

    • I generally LOVE the Apple Stores and they do many things really well. I normally have a great experience there and I normally rave about their service.

      I agree that Apple isn’t “L.A.M.E.” because they don’t profess to be using Lean/TPS.

      That said, if they have implemented “just pieces” or things that are just coincidentally like Lean, you can call that “good” but not “Lean.”

      Do Apple Stores vaguely practice continuous improvement and respect for people? If so, that’s sort of like Lean, but you can’t call it “Lean” anymore than somebody doing a bit of statistical analysis is doing “Six Sigma.”

      For example, the fact that Apple employees let you pay on the spot with an iPhone (used to be a Palm Pilot) is sort of like Lean – small pieces of capacity at the point of need rather than one giant monument cash register line… that might remind you of a Lean concept, but I’d argue is not “Lean” that they do that. It’s good.

    • Also, a more effective triage would have sent me immediately to Sean, the guy who helped me, not two other people in between.

      There’s a lot of good, and some bad, that we can learn from… but again, I’d argue it’s not “Lean.”

  5. Ok, you bring up a good point that I think is very interesting. I agree that the standard should be set very high for an organization to call itself Lean. It should include not only the way processes are designed but also the fundamental treatment and respect for the people within. However, what is the terminology that we use for organizations that are beginning or in the middle of their journey? I certainly don’t think that my own organization could call itself “Lean”. And in many ways I can see even an un-lean company such as Apple outshines us in many ways of lean thinking. Have we completely changed our culture to the lean ideals? Not even close. But we are on our way. We don’t claim to be what we are not, so I wouldn’t say we are LAME either. . . we are simply on our journey.

    • I think we’re inadvertently talking past each other.

      My comments had nothing to do with “how Lean” Apple is in the spectrum of “Lean-ness.” My comments were about how Apple isn’t using Lean methods or ascribing any of their success to Lean (as in the Toyota Production System, formal methodology), so it’s not “Lean.” Not a matter of if they’re 10% of the way to some mythical perfect end point or 85% of the way there. It’s not “Lean thinking” if Apple isn’t using the Lean methodology.

      I think you’re confusing the terms “good” and “Lean.” They are not synonymous.

      You can’t call an organization “Lean,” but you can say they are using Lean methods and Lean philosophies. That’s easier to gauge. ThedaCare, for example, could be called a “Lean hospital” not because they are perfect but because they are using the Lean methodology to improve and to manage the business. Like you said, they are on their journey. Apple is not on that “journey” because they (as far as we know) aren’t using formal Lean methodologies.


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