Don’t Bother the Barista – make any work system better

Prefer to watch on video than read?  Click here, 6 mins with captions.

If you’ve been with me for a while, chances are I’ve run through this with you.  The purpose of this is to put it all in the one spot.

This is about understanding the focussing point required to get any system (any system) to work better.  And by ‘better’, I mean better for customers, better for those working in it, and better for the bank balance and purpose of the organisation too.

The name of this stuff is not a marketing person’s dream…Theory of Constraints, and it comes from the brilliant Dr. Eli Goldratt who had the advantage of being a physicist to start with, which allowed him to come at things from his own angle.

I’ll go through it.

Basic Work System

Basic work system:

No tricks here, things have to pass from A to B to C, whether these areas are people, departments, different businesses…doesn’t matter.  And don’t think this is just production lines – if work needs to get shipped via email, or uploaded….it still has steps.  Even Leonardo Da Vinci had steps:

  1. Think of something
  2. Get materials
  3. Produce genius
  4. Show it to someone

Still steps.

Now we put in how much each area can do, which is where time is relevant.  How much can they do per period, for example per day, or per week.  Called throughput.  Let’s put in some numbers:

The numbers represent how many each can produce per period. 

Now, ask yourself this if you haven’t seen this before….how many things per period can this whole system produce?  In other words…what number goes into that circle?

The answer is of course:

five…and that’s because the system can go no faster than its slowest point…which is area B.

Obvious right?  But how often do we apply this logic to make things better?

Lingo Issues

Think about the lingo we tend to use around area B in the diagram.

  • Weakest Link’….never nice to be called that.
  • Constraint’ as in the name of this whole theory…do you want to be considered the constraint?
  • Bottleneck’ – what are these usually associated with?  Slack people not responding.
  • Choke point’ –  originating in World War II, and choking is not exactly a nice sentiment

The reality is that this weakest link is the most important link, because it’s the one that sets the pace. 

Which is why I use the term PACESETTER to describe Area B, so we can all see it’s true role.

The Barista

So, if our system is a cafe making coffees, we have

  • Step A – taking orders
  • Step B – the Barista making the coffees (‘B’ for ‘Barista’…a happy accident!)
  • Step C – customer gets coffee from counter

Ask yourself which step sets the pace of the throughput of coffee…and it’s going to be the Barista.

The Barista is the Pacesetter in our system.

Again…obvious stuff right?  So let’s now go onto how we make things better.

Goldratt’s Five Steps

These are the five simple and powerful steps Eli Goldratt gives us to improve any work system.  The classic mistake is to jump to Step 4, which becomes overwhelming…so we give up and return to blaming complexity and/or leadership. 

So here’s what we do, and I’ll use some of my own words here:

Step Zero– Identify the Goal. 

Called Step 0 because it’s before we get started, the trick here is to identify what the system is trying to achieve. Throughput (number of things per period) is an easy one.  Some systems, however, are about quality first.  And all are going to have a limiting factor, for example we want to maximise throughput within certain limits of quality (such as making coffee). 

Spend the time to get clear on this first.  Then away we go to:

Step One – IDENTIFY the Pacesetter

Who is the Barista in your process?  Which is the single area that most determines the ability of the system’s goal to get produced?  It’s often the area that’s complained about the most (IT anyone?).  Or you can use data to figure it out (there’ll be a post coming soon to help you with this more).   

We need to know who is the most equal among equals in terms of the work system if we want to make any difference.

Now…we simply invest in the Barista and make it better right?  Not yet.  Before that we do…

Step Two – OPTIMISE the Pacesetter

This step is about finding the things sitting right in front of us that slow down the Barista already.  As a recent LinkedIn connection of mine Arnon Yaffe wrote here, it’s about making the most of what you already have.  Examples would be arranging shifts so there is never any downtime even if this means extra expense.  Making easy changes to the work environment that allows that team more focus (yes, they get the nicer spot).  Changing any policies that are now realised to be nonsensical when applied to that team.

You would be right in pointing out that if we treated everyone that way, we’d run out of money.  That’s why we did Step One – because we are not going to treat everyone that way.  Only the Barista.  Because they set the pace.  A minute lost there is never regained.  Unlike the others.

How do you do this step?  Ask them!  Observe!  A bit of focus always reveals some obvious stuff.

With the obvious stuff in place, now we go to…

Step Three – SUPPORT the Pacesetter

This is about everyone in the system realising that the Pacesetter is first among equals.  That they are more important in the context of this work system (not in the context of wider humanity).  Everyone else is important too….to do their part to make the whole system run, which means to support the Pacesetter.

In our café example, this means those taking the orders ensuring that the Barista never has to ask, “Is this a flat white or a cappuccino?”.  Those taking orders have the extra capacity to take the time to get it right because taking an order takes less time than making a coffee.

Which takes us to the performance measures – if the other areas are recognised only for their own throughput, for their “local performance”, then we have designed a system which will not naturally support the Pacesetter.  This is an example of how policy or managerial systems can take away support from the Pacesetter.  Which slows down the show.

This one is hard.  When was the last time a General Manager of Marketing procured themselves an extra $3 million of budget, then immediately gave $2 million of it to IT because they can’t go any faster than IT anyway?  That human need to do well in our own world is strong.  Which is why the set up of what people will be recognised for is so crucial.

Doing this step requires facilitating sessions to get everyone to fully understand how the system really works…and to make the necessary mindset changes about what they are really doing.  This then leads to the ideas and actions that will make a difference.  Can require some skill to get this to happen.

Now with our Pacesetter being supported by all involved in the system, we are now ready for the step everyone naturally jumps to, which is…

Step Four – INVEST in the Pacesetter

This is where we look for ways to lift production of the Pacesetter through investment.  If the purchase of a new coffee machine will lift throughput of that step by 20%, then the whole system improves by 20%. 

Think about this – if we invest in a new point of sale technology that allows orders to be taken 20% faster…. what effect will this have on throughput?  Remember the below:

Lifting the speed of A does not improve the speed of B.   The only way investing in new technology at A makes a difference to the whole show is if it helps B. And it might…if, for example, one of the things that slows the Barista down is having to confirm orders…and the technology at A reduces the number of mistakes coming through by replacing handwriting with clear screens…. then this might work.

And if we know gross profit numbers…we can do real maths to figure out whether the investment is worth it.  Which means we don’t have to call it ‘strategic’ or ‘minimising risk’ to get it over the line.

(As a side note, this is why so many enthusiastic people in roles around ‘Improvement’ end up disappointed.  The only areas with time to work with them are A and C.  Yet improving A and C won’t make a difference to the overall show, and there are no tangible results to the bottom line.  Hence, they move on to the next organisation….and repeat)

After Step Four, we have one final step, which is

Step Five – REPEAT (carefully)

Go back to Step One (not zero), and go again.

The carefully part is to not create a situation with a roving constraint.  We can get hold of a complex system by finding our key pacesetting point.  To change that requires everyone to re-learn, so this should not be done without due consideration.

To put it simply, when the Barista starts getting up near 8 or 9, apply the steps to A to get it up to 12 or 13.  That way the Barista continues to be the Pacesetter, and the space is then created to keep it that way so the system holds together.

The Bigger Point

While Goldratt’s book is called The Goal, and tells the story of a production line, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all it applies to. 

The underlying principles are crucial, and you can find them in other places such as:

The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule, which shows that in an amazing number of situations, 80% of the outputs come from 20% of the inputs.  For example, 80% of the issues come from 20% of the people/process.  80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people (which these days is so much more extreme).  Analysis of customers often shows that 80% of the profit comes from 20% of the customers.

Archimedes’ Lever, from the famous ancient Greek inventor and scientist who established the principle of leverage, including  “give me a lever large enough and a place to stand and I can move the Earth”.  (He also loved a bath)

Strategy – which is ultimately about choosing which resources to focus where for what purpose, which means to close other doors.   Napoleon’s concentration of force to defeat larger armies is a classic example of this.

Defeating the Empire, where, in a galaxy far, far away, X-Wing pilot Luke Skywalker was able to send a miraculous shot into the one weak point of the Death Star thus saving the Rebel Alliance for the time being

The common link between all of this is FOCUS.  In his later days, when asked to sum up Theory of Constraints, that is the word Goldratt himself gave – FOCUS.

Bringing it Home

Strangely, despite the logic and the common sense, these ideas are rarely deliberately applied in organisations.  This is because it takes courage to first find the Pacesetter, then to focus on it.  It’s much easier to give in to competing demands, and return to the world of maximising the performance of our own areas, particularly when that’s what we are recognised for.

Which is why it takes an act of leadership to do what’s needed for the whole system.

Once you’ve found this…the above gives you a very straightforward way to put this into action.


Now, over to you.

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