Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Building a business for resilience 2 – building management for better identifying and resolving bottlenecks 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 7, 2015

I have written a number of times in this blog about change management and responding to the disruptively unexpected, and that has been one of the areas of focus of my own professional life too – finding better ways to limit the more negative impacts of disruptive change and of the unexpected, while realizing their more positive possibilities. But that is not what I am writing about here. I am writing about flexibility and adaptability in a more normative day-to-day context – process decisions of a type that every real world business faces all of the time and even every single day but that many could manage better for the ruts they sink into and for their blind spots in seeing the consequences of that.

This is my second posting to a series on building flexibility and resiliency into a business in its routine day-to-day decisions and follow-through, so it can more adaptively anticipate and respond to this ongoing low-level but with time significant flow of ongoing change and its cumulative consequences (see Part 1: buildings systems and processes so they can fail gracefully.)

I wrote Part 1 with a focus on more effectively working through and around breakdowns and inefficiencies when they do occur, noting that this is bound to happen at least occasionally and even with the best preparation and planning and for any business. My focus here is on making such breakdowns less common events, and more limited for their overall impact when they do occur. And as a starting point for that, I raise the specter of a problem that most if not all of this posting’s readers have seen first-hand, and as a consumer and a store customer if not from the vantage of working for or with the involved business.

You go into a grocery or department store or some other retail business and with a tight schedule that limits how long you can stay there and you walk the aisles as you make your selections for purchase. Then you go to the front of the store to its checkout stations to complete your purchases and pay for those items. And several and even most of the checkout stations are closed – no one there who is working for the store is manning them. So you find yourself standing in a long customer checkout line waiting to complete your business there, and for a period of time that quickly comes to be much longer than would seem to be warranted and certainly if you see the store manager walking by, and you see employees who could be doing checkout work walking by and seemingly just doing busywork – work that could arguably be seen as holding lower priority and certainly from the customer perspective, than helping them complete their purchases so they can leave and do other things that they have to do that day and even right away.

Most businesses in fact keep their staffs to an absolute minimum, in order to keep payroll and other personnel-related expenses to a minimum. That is understandable. Many do this as a matter of explicitly seeking out the minimum level of direct employee to customer service and support that they can get away with, without leaving their customers so frustrated that they abandon their shopping carts and leave – and perhaps never come back. In my waiting line example here, consider a customer who had run into a store to make a quick purchase during their workday lunch break and before they have to return to work – and they lose sufficient time waiting to check out that they feel they have to just give up and rush out – without having had an opportunity to buy and pay for their needed purchase selections. How many times can a store leave a customer in this bind: wasting their time and leaving them frustrated, before they decide to never go back there again? What is the impact if these now former customers share their frustrated stories of their experience with this business with their friends and co-workers, and some or even many of them decide not to risk losing a frustrating portion of their lunch break that way too? But in this case, and for this working example let’s assume that there was paid staff at hand, stocking shelves, filling out paperwork … doing essentially anything that might be needed, but not necessarily right then – as the numbers of customers build up during a predictable lunch hour from several or even many of the local employers in that area and when those customers are all looking at their watches and wondering if they will have time to complete their purchases and get back to work before they would be considered late?

I intentionally made this working example – actually this non-working example extreme. In the real world, most retail businesses do in fact see peak periods where their aisles are filled with customers and their checkout lines are too, and slow periods where they are all but empty. And this ebb and flow can arise cyclically and at readily anticipatable times – as for example when people on regularly scheduled lunch hour breaks rush in. And it can arise unexpectedly when the store suddenly fills up or seems to empty out but without fitting into any particular known and anticipatable pattern.

To focus here on the predictable and on one type of retail business for that, I have experience working with retail grocery stores and have come to expect, as a working example, mothers and their children to arrive in large numbers when the school day has just ended at a large nearby grade school. And a wide range of businesses see sharp rises in customer levels whenever their local weather reporters begin to announce an impending significantly impactful winter storm, with grocery store shelves significantly emptied out and hardware stores to cite a second type of business so affected, running out of snow shovels and rock salt. This is a temperate climate example where winter storms mean snow and ice and a lot of both, but tropical climates have their own variations on this impending weather-driven example too. The question here is one of how responsive store management is in shifting task and staffing priorities, and in reallocating available staff accordingly. And this is where a question would also be raised as to how responsive management is going to be when those shifts in customer levels on-site are not driven by routinely predictable events such as school getting out, or dramatic if less long-term predictable ones such as winter storms.

I admit that I am not just writing here about simple binary choice decision processes: do this task now or do that second specific task now. When a store is packed with customers and they are making larger overall purchases, there might be real pressure to keep its checkout lanes fully staffed, and with extra help bagging groceries as well as managing the cash registers, to continue with that example. But just as much effort has to be made to keep the shelves stocked from on-site warehoused inventory too. It is not going to help anyone if the checkout lines are fast and efficient if the store has stock available in back that those customers want to purchase now, but it is not getting to the shelves fast enough for them to be able to buy it.

So I am writing about a business process where immediate needs are continually being reassessed and staffing is being allocated and reallocated accordingly in order to meet current high priority needs as they emerge. And I am writing about identifying sometimes conflicting needs that can both carry significant needs-based priority – and that conflict with each other because the people who could do either of them cannot be in two places at the same time and doing different types of work on both tasks at that same time. And I am also writing here about a need for communications skills and both with those staff members, and with customers who are waiting – watching both for shelve slots that are emptying and for shelf slots that customers are looking for items in and not finding them, as well as looking for unacceptably and avoidably lengthening checkout lines. (Yes, this is a contrived example where there are precisely two conflicting tasks to be carried out and where the same pool of employees would carry out both, and with no specialists who are primarily trained to do one or the other. In the real world it is not uncommon for trained specialists such as cashiers to in fact carry out more than one type of task depending on current need for their particular specialization and overall task completion priorities.)

My goal here has been to at least briefly and selectively present an admittedly simple if commonly experienced opportunity for management and business process disconnects and problems, in a familiar type of retail business context. I am going to step back to consider the more general issues and principles that arise here, in a next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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