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The Chipotle Emphasis on "Throughput" is A Recipe for Continued Disappointment (talkin' to you, @ChipotleTweets)

Chipotle storefront
flickr credit: kurtmckee

Yesterday I read a Quartz article by Roberto A. Ferdman entitled "How Chipotle is going to serve burritos faster, and faster, and faster" which got me thinking about the Chipotle way of taking orders and preparing food. What fascinates me about the workflow and communications and customer-employee interactions at Chipotle is that it is so broken in numerous tiny little ways, and yet, the company's executives pride themselves in the "throughput" of its "crew" who are "empowered and happy in their jobs" (quotes from the recording of this past week's Chipotle quarterly earnings conference call).

The executives describe their business in a thick jargon of corporate culturespeak including "our unique food culture" (translated: take Mexican cuisine and remove all the rich vibrancy of actual Mexican culture and replace with a pleasant, clean, efficient retail ambience right out of the movie Her) and "our unique people culture" (translated: hire feeling, thinking, living, breathing human beings with lives and dreams and aspirations and hopes of their own, and turn them into low-wage Crew members striving to reach the top of the daily and weekly and monthly and quarterly and annual performance reports) and which is filled with "top performers" who if they keep at it can become "restauranteurs" who "deliver better because their teams are all top performers." Ferdman was right to allude to Chairman Mao in his article. There is a subtext throughout the Chipotle culture that, if you pause to think about it, is kind of creepy and sad and, I would argue, is not actually achieving the levels of perfection that they clearly want to achieve.

What follows is an analysis triggered by a general fascination with how groups of people work together especially in retail settings. I blame it on the awesome Cognitive Science classes I took at UCSD with Don Norman and Ed Hutchins years ago. Especially the classes on "cognitive engineering" and "distributed cognition." So if you read on, lest you think this is one big First World Problem type of whining, bear in mind it's a user experience, customer experience, cognitive engineering context where all this thinking derives from. I'm interested in how well, how efficiently, and how not well, and how inefficiently, employees interact with each other in service to customers, how they interact with customers themselves, and how and whether employees lead customers to successful outcomes and transactions. In the scenarios and observations that follow, I'm looking at a lot of things, especially the little things. From the big picture, I realize that everything almost always works out fine. Customer goes in, orders, gets their food, pays, goes, done. Next customer goes in, etc. All day. But what I am interested in is the details. The little things. The moments of fail, be it miniscule or epic. Avoidable moments, usually brought on by inattention, or bad training, or a focus on the wrong things. If Don Norman and Lewis Black had an offspring blogger, what follows is what the blog might look like.

not this bad
It's not this bad . . .

Throughput Is King

lucy at the chocolate factory

The big buzzword, the mantra, you hear from Chipotle management over and over again is "throughput." The execs utter phrases like, "of course, better throughput is better customer service!" Hear hear. Jolly good show.

The problem with an obsessive focus on throughput is that it puts all the focus on the wrong side of the counter. It focuses on what is going on with Chipotle employees, and not with Chipotle customers, the people on the other side of the counter. The side that actually pays the company money.

I actually find it a bit weird that Chipotle focuses on throughput but at the same time prides itself in a careful selection of food ingredients, such as nothing genetically modified and meats with no hormones or antibiotics in them. All good things. But if you think about it, what is agribusiness thinking about? Efficiency. Profits. Shareholder returns. Selling more for less cost. Throughput. And, far be it for me to ever defend agribusiness, but genetically modifying food and injecting animals with hormones and antibiotics is done to improve the bottom line, is it not, to improve profits, reduce waste, produce more meat than before, longer-lasting vegetables than before, etc. Agribusiness cares about stuff like, you know, throughput. Not about the human being on the other end who is going to eat the stuff. At Chipotle, the focus on throughput neglects the customer in subtle but important ways.

When you focus on efficiency and throughput above all else, you forget to focus on "put through." As in, what you as a business put your customers through. What they have to go through. What they have to deal with, what they have to do. What they have to say. How watchful and attentive they have to be -- precisely because so much of the employee attentiveness is for show or is to look good to the boss, but usually isn't real. You can tell it's not real because so many little mistakes happen all day long. The perky cheery attentiveness is designed for optimizing throughput to optimize shareholder value, not making customers happy and stress-free. In a Chipotle, every step of the way, the customer has to watch the employees and their order because so much can, and does, go wrong.

The Typical Chipotle Customer Experience

The moment the fingers of one of your hands touch the door handle of the Chipotle store and pull to swing open said door. It is at that very moment, allowing just enough nanoseconds for the mere tip of one toe on one of your feet to enter the restaurant, that the Chipotle Customer Experience begins. That's all it takes. For you have entered more than a doorway. Much, much more. You have passed through the Chipotle Greeting Membrane, and like the blue humming mist above the egg-pods in Alien, Chipotle has noticed.

"Huhhhhlllllo," some team member, some member of the Chipotle Crew sings, from somewhere in the distance behind the counter far away, as if some little buzzer deep underneath their uniform just emitted a gentle Skinnerian electric shock against their body because a sensor tripped the moment you came through the door, and this particular type of shock was one they've been trained to recognize and which makes them mindlessly, instantly sing the word "huhhhhhllllooo," or an equivalent sweet nothing, without even looking up.

"Welcome to Chipotle," another sing-songy lilting voice says, at exactly the same time.

"Hi welcome," another voice chimes in, also at exactly the same time, in a strained "we are told to say this, our continued employment depends on it" kind of way.

"Welcome hi" more voices chime in, again also at the same time.

It's like a scene from a store in a city inside some totalitarian state, and you, the Dear Leader himself, just walked in.

oh hai
flickr credit: inakazira

One might say that all these employee greetings are harmless, sincere, perfectly fine. I would agree. Generally, it's a good thing. It is good that people who work at a store greet you in a friendly way, make you feel welcome from the second you step in. It is good to see that they are attentive, that they noticed. Gives you a good impression right from the start. So far, so good.

(Probably the ultimate extension of this Chipotle Greeting would be if everyone, customers and employees alike, chimed in. Wouldn't it be something if everyone in the store, even the customers, all turned to the door, every time someone came in, and all together said "Welcome! Hi there! Hello!" in unison. That would probably make Chipotle executives' heads explode. And stock go through the roof.)

Of course, the Chipotle Crew could just as well mumble "rah!" or "heh" or "frobuhighbarghefburg" or bark or chirp or meow or moo or coo like an animal, it would all be about the same. The disembodied, sometimes cheery, sometimes not, sometimes forced, sometimes lilting, often sad voices say the same thing, in the same way, every time someone enters the store, textbook employee behavior as dictated by the ever looming, ever-watching, ever optimizing corporate HR department. One assumes the employees are being recorded, and their "Hellos" being measured for volume, crispness, perkiness, the right degree of hipness, the exact proper level of pleasantness, level of cheer, degree of happiness conveyed, and level of authenticity, the way the restaurant in Office Space counted how many pieces of flair you had on your uniform.

Personally, every time I walk into a Chipotle, I imagine my field of vision suddenly filling with a word-cloud's worth of Doge meme "hi therez" printed in toy colors, and I imagine hearing all of the happy fun lucky greetings spoken in whatever the spoken equivalent of a lowercase Comic Sans font sounds like. So fun. Very doge.

But I digress. This is about the customer experience. We should continue. Let's just stipulate that you've made it through the greetings gauntlet and gotten to the counter. Maybe there's a line of people in front of you and you've had to wait patiently, until your turn arrives. Fine.

Customer experience and employee workflow at Chipotle

Now you are at the counter. This is where it gets interesting. Look at the diagram above. You are X, the customer. X is greeted by employee A, who after a doge-like "hai hello there" asks X what X would like to order.

"I'd like a---" customer X begins to say, but the rest of their sentence, the " . . . chicken salad to go, please," was interrupted by employee A singing "welcome hi" or "huhhhhlooooo" to somebody who just entered behind X, forcing X to repeat the order.

Now, if X neglects to mention the "to go" part, A asks if it's for here or to go, because the information is needed for them to decide whether to fetch a "for here" basket or a "to go" bowl for your salad. In this hypothetical, if A was paying attention, A heard X say "to go" -- an iffy proposition but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. So A has been trained to reach for the salad bowl and then fill it with lettuce and then ask if X wants the honey vinagrette dressing. If X says yes, A grabs one of the pre-made little containers and the order moves on to the next stage of the assembly line.

If the store is busy, there are probably multiple "crew" or "team" members behind the counter. I've seen four, sometimes five, all workin' the line. They're all frantically busy, or at least pretending to look busy, and the busier they are, the less attentive they seem to be. And this is where things start falling apart.

Crew member A pushes X's order to B who is standing in front of the add-ons, the white and brown rices, the two types of beans, the onion/green stuff which I never order, and finally, the meat selection. If this were a burrito order B would ask X what type of rice, but since it is a salad order, B doesn't, and asks instead what type of beans. If X is crafty, X can ask for brown rice and black beans, which messes with B's head but somewhere inside that head B has been trained to do what the customer asks, so they put some rice in the salad and then put the requested bean type in the salad.

Chipitle meats
flickr credit: brownpau

But then we get to the failure. B wasn't paying attention to X telling A that the order was a chicken salad, so B asks X, "what type of meat?"

It's the same fail that happens when you call a corporation, like an airline, or a bank, a credit card company, a health insurer, or any number of big bureaucracies. The phone system asks you to enter your ID, or your SSN, or your account number, whatever it may be, and then you navigate through some menus, wait a bunch of minutes, and eventually reach a human, who invariably asks, after warning you that the call's being monitored and recorded, for your ID, your SSN, your account number, or whatever it was that you already typed in.

So B asks X for meat type. And X says chicken. And B never thinks or knows that X told A "chicken" already. It never enters B's mind. B won't be thinking tonight, after work, I should have known that X ordered chicken already. I'm going to try harder tomorrow. After all, great throughput means great customer service! And I want to be a top performer! But B won't be thinking that tonight. Right now B is thinking about B's immediate job, and, like a robot at an automobile factory, it has one job to do and one job only: scoop up the type of meat X has asked for, and put it into the container. So B scoops up some chicken, pausing to sing out "huhhhloooo! welcome! hai!" in beautiful doge-speak and hands the order down the line to C who has at the exact same moment been singing "huhlooooo welcome hai there" as well.

Chipitle salsas
flickr credit: animalkitty

Employee C doesn't know X from Adam, hasn't heard a thing of X's interactions between A and then B. C asks X what salsa do you want, usually in a quick "mildmediumorhot?" mumble -- what is the difference between "mild" and "medium"? They look completely different, but it's hard for X to remember. X invariably points to a specific container of salsa goop, which C then scoops up and pours onto the order. If X is like me, X will say "some medium and some hot" which C then scoops up. Before X has a chance to take a breath C is asking about sour cream and guacamole and the rest of the fixings. X and C do their exchange and the salad is assembled.

If there is an employee D, they take it from here, asking if X wants chips and salsa with that. Let's say X says yes, and requests hot salsa.

Uh-oh, another moment of fail. C wasn't listening to X; C is dealing with another customer. D is gone back to the shelf to fetch a pre-bagged bag of chips. D wanders back to the assembly line, fetches an empty salsa goop container, and hands it to C, who is probably working on another order. Cognitive collision time. D didn't hear the salsa type, and so has to ask X again. If C isn't listening, D has to repeat it to C, who scoops up the selected goop and puts it into the little container.

All during this assembly experience, customer X has to listen and watch everything like a frickin' hawk. So much can and will go wrong if X doesn't. The whole Chipotle team instantly trainwrecks if X isn't on top of things. When the restaurant is busy, a trainwreck is pretty much a guaranteed incident, every minute or so.

For example, I was in the store a few days ago. Some lady customer was ahead of me. She placed a big order of several salads and burritos to go. I ordered a salad to go. Then she did the thing that customers everywhere are wont to do, she asked a question, something outside of the script, something that ground Chipotle's vaunted "throughput" to a halt. Suddenly I see my salad pass by hers, one of the crew members motioning me to move ahead of the lady customer. But the crew member is at only partial attention, and begins to conflate my salad order with the other customer's salads. What kind of salsa was that? Huhhhhlooooo hai there welcome haiiiiiii. Sorry, what type of salsa did you say? You did or didn't want guacamole? Did you want chips? Cheese or no? And then my salad bowl is covered up with its aluminum top, nothing written on the outside, and sitting near the cashier section of the assembly line, next to one of the lady's already-prepared salads similarly wrapped up ready to go.

Gotta watch it like a hawk. One false move and you suddenly have the lady's salad. It's like a shell game. The Chipotle crew, bless 'em, are all the while singing "hullos" and "welcome to chipotles" and all the other cheery greetings to the next schmuck who has walked into the store behind you. And then the cashier starts ringing you up. They have no idea what the salad is. Beef? Chicken? The other customer was not paying attention but now is, and is frustrated that your salad and hers have been swapped and that you are now ahead of her. And now the cashier screws up, rings up the wrong order, insists to you that you some ordered beef monstrosity with some crazy extra onion extra sour cream goop on top that you would never in a million years order, and sure enough they have to take the covers off both salads to inspect whose is whose, while more customers are now pouring in at the other end of the assembly line. "Hullllloooooo welcome hi welcome...."

Chipitle beans and fixings
flickr credit: Ben Popken

Such is the life of we the X's, whose mission is to manage these Chipotle employees' every move or watch the entire flow collapse within seconds. It is remarkable. For all the corporate talk of optimizing "throughput" what Chipotle has completely neglected is "put through" -- that is, what the customer is put through during this whole workflow. The customer really is the boss here, a fact that unfortunately most customers don't realize until too late. If they don't monitor every move and every communication of A, B, C, D, and E, things fail. The order gets screwed up. Something gets forgotten. And then the line backs up. And things get busier, and A, B, C, D, and E are even more frantic and absent-minded for the next poor X in line, and so on, and so on, and so on.

It's not throughput. It's just fail. But this is what Chipotle prides itself in. This is what the executives spend minutes and minutes on, reading from happy-corporate-culture-speak prepared statements on their quarterly conference calls. They really believe this stuff, and they believe that passing the hot potato, you, and your order, from Crew Member A, to Crew Member B, to C, to D, to E, heck, can we get up to Z?

What is missing is a sense of empathy. The Chipotle team seems oblivious to the plight of the customer. To the little failures that happen between A and B and C and D and E. Failures that go unnoticed unless customer X, forced to stay alert, speaks up and points out the mistake, the error, the wrong salsa, the wrong burrito, the beef instead of chicken, the sour cream instead of cheese. Whatever it is that screws up the order.

Suggestions for Improvement

So what can Chipotle do to improve things? There are a thousand approaches it could take, a thousand little things it could do.

For starters, it could write down your order, or mark the basics (CHICKEN, SALAD, TO GO) on a piece of paper, which is taped to the actual bowl of salad. Maybe, for efficiency's sake, the employee A had a pen, and checked off some boxes, like the CHICKEN box, and the SALAD box, and the TO GO box. Think about it. Suddenly every damn member of the Chipotle Crew, all the way down the line, crew member A, B, C, D, E, et cetera, all would know that you had ordered a CHICKEN SALAD and, the mind boggles, look at that, will you, the customer wants it TO GO.

You could improve the point of sale systems. It is interesting that Chipotle does the opposite of many fast-food joints like McDonalds and Jack in the Box. At those places, you walk up to Employee A and they take your order and punch it into their computer/cash register and you pay right then and there. Transaction over.

Chipotle does things like Subway, Quiznos, and other such joints. You go in, you order, and they start assemblin'. Maybe they do this because it is an opportunity to upsell all along the way. If you listen carefully you'll catch the more sophisticated Chipotle Crew members upselling you for chips and salsa, for some extra fixings that cost more, etc. They're prolly trained to do it, the way movie theatres train their concessionaires to remind you that for a mere fifty cents more you could get a 2100-calorie trough of popcorn instead of that tiny, child-sized small portion.

When Subway and Quiznos work well, they work well because you, customer X, and employee A, stick with each other the whole way down the line. As follows:

Customer experience and employee workflow at Chipotle -- in a perfect world

Employee A would take your order. Employee A would ask you what type of rice you want. What type of beans you want. What type of meat you want. What type of salsa you want. Whether you want cheese. Whether you want that weird oniony-corn relish mash that I never order. Whether you want more lettuce. And whether you want chips and salsa, and if so, what type of salsa. Imagine. If Employee A followed you straight through the entire flow, you're dealing with one mind, one memory. They don't have to convey what you wanted to Employee B, who would then pass the baton to Employee C and then D and then E and so on, each step of the way, possibly, likely introducing errors small and large.

Improve throughput? Well, how about behind Employee A would be Employee B. And behind Employee B would be C, and behind C would be D. As customer X moves down the line with A, the next customer would team up with Employee B. Then they'd move together down the line, and the next customer would team up with Employee C. You mate the customer with the employee. They stay together throughout the entire assembly cycle, and at the end the employee passes the customer off to the cashier Z.

It just seems that the current way is not working, and what corporate management wants to do --- the ABCDE plan, call it --- is only going to make things worse. There's got to be a better way.

The simplest thing you could do, Chipotle, is train your employees to communicate. Communication starts with listening. And then making sure the other party, in this case, the next employee in the chain, is hearing what is being said. Start with eye contact. Have the next employee echo back the order. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if you mimicked what Naval officers do in every submarine movie ever made. Captain says "Submerge to 500 feet, 20 degrees down bubble" and the XO repeats the order and then the Chief of the boat repeats the order and then the actual driver of the boat who's pushing the big levers and steering wheel repeats the order, everyone repeating it verbatim, so everyone in the chain knows the order survived intact.

Imagine if customers could enter the store, place orders, and, ignoring the doge-speak deluge of "hai welllcomes" and "huhhhllooooos" and "welllllcome haiiiis," be confident that their orders survived intact.

No matter what Chipotle does, I suggest they send out observers who not only monitor how the employees are doing things, but monitor the communication going on between customer and employee, and between employees along the line. Right now the communication is breaking down because the customer has to deal with so many different people, each in a state of partial attention (remember, in addition to what's going on right in front of them on the food counter, every thirty seconds they have to sing out a "hai therez" or "welcome hi" in their best doge-speak as another customer enters the store), each trying to keep up appearances, fulfill their duty correctly, and make the quota so they and their team gets selected for top-performer status. I have nothing wrong with top performers. But the customers should be able to perform at their best too.

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