Be Careful What You Wish For

A colleague, friend and lean leader in healthcare related a story a while back that I think is worth sharing.   Joanne Marqusee, COO at Hallmark Healthcare System, was standing in line at a grocery store checkout.   While she waited, Joanne recalls, she noticed that the cashier had added an unusual intermediate step to the scanning process:  As the customer in front of Joanne placed items on the belt, the cashier picked each item up, reorienting with the barcode facing up.  After all items had been re-oriented, the cashier then picked up a scanner and flew through the scanning process with lightning speed.

What do you think was happening there? 

Joanne wondered this too, since the checkout time was long – too long.  “Why make the customer wait for items to be organized on the belt?” she asked the cashier.  “What’s the point?”    The cashier responded, “My productivity is measured as the time between the first and last scan for each customer.  By lining up the bar codes, I can scan the order in much less time.”  There are a couple lessons in Joanne’s story: 

First, sometimes management will impose a measurement system that produces unintended results.  As Joanne noted, “Be careful what you wish for.”    The measurement at the cash register caused the cashier to behave in a way that delayed the customer, but was apparently efficient.  

Second, and perhaps more significantly, if the store manager were actually present for even an instant at the checkout, he/she would have realized the problem with the measurement scheme.   Direct observation – being there – is important for all employees.  But for managers, its importance is paramount.   No P-D-C-A for management decisions perpetuates crazy policies that impact employees and customers in regrettable ways. 

So, why are top managers on the floor so infrequently?  Send me your thoughts. 


8 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Evan Durant

    That is a great story about the unintended consequences of productivity measures and of the importance of direct observation. I think it also says a lot about how local optimization, without regard for the impact to the customer, can negatively impact the system as a whole.

  2. Thomas Perri

    Managers need to build into their reality the realization that Gemba (“Go See”, “Real Place”) is a requirement of them, just like attending that next meeting. I am not talking about going to the area that the value added work is being produced and expecting a dog and pony show from the workers. I am talking about going to see the real place, the real reality, not the reality that they have created or is created for them, to make them feel good. The workers should be on a first name basis with them, anything else perpetuates the disconnect that most manager’s have when it comes to what the workforce does every day. Gemba should be the norm not the exception.

  3. Norm

    I have been a fan of Bruce Hamilton since seeing the 5S video. He does a remarkable job of practically applying the concepts of lean to the real world in non-manufacturing settings.

    This post was a laugh out loud read. So often I see management setting up systems that create waste and increase lead time while the managers think they are measuring and reducing waste and improving efficiencies.

    Thanks Bruce, and keep up the great work!

    Norm Bain

  4. Michael Lampers

    I see the result of unintended consequences everyday in the procurement world as well. I see buyers being measured according to how fast they convert requests into purchases. The result: the creation of many small purchase orders of the same items over and over again. Requests that would normally grouped into one weekly purchase are now processed individually in order to meet the metric.
    This approach triggers greater costs along the supply chain: increased costs in shipping, receiving, stocking, and accounting to name a few. Additionally, extra contract labor was needed to handle the higher number of purchase orders.
    Meanwhile, managers pat themselves on the back for reducing the processing time of requisitions.

    Go Bruce Go!

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