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Is the express lane in the grocery store always the fastest lane?

That’s a great question and its the subject of a “Dear Mona” column over on FiveThirtyEight (Dear Mona, Which Is The Fastest Check-Out Lane At The Grocery Store?, Oct 16). Mona attacks this question by heading into the queuing theory weeds.

I couldn’t find much research on express lanes specifically, but one paper from Amsterdam found the reduction in wait times for express-lane customers didn’t offset the overall increase in wait times for everyone. Maybe life would be easier if the supermarket didn’t have an express lane — or, better yet, if it got rid of multiple lines altogether and had all customers join a single infinitely sprawling line where there were no winners and losers. That might sound nightmarish, but the math actually suggests it would be anything but.

That math comes from queuing theory, a subject of study that’s been around ever since Danish mathematician Agner Krarup Erlang discovered a method for managing telephone traffic in 1909. To answer your question, I’ve had to take a crash course in (more modern) queuing theory, including examining formulae that calculate how average wait times at the grocery store vary depending on the type of line you join.

I should state upfront Mona on the whole acquits herself quite well on this. But there are a couple of points worth mentioning. First, there in fact supermarkets that run with a single queue, like this Hannaford’s in West Lebanon, NH.

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As you can see, that singe serpentine queue ends up chewing up a lot of space at the front of the store. That’s a lot of real estate to give up when you only have two people in line. As we have written about before, that is only one of the complications of having a single queue in a grocery setting.

But let’s suppose for the moment that we can get a single queue to work. Is that in fact the best way to run a supermarket’s checkout? Continue Reading »

It doesn’t seem that there should be that much innovation in shipping. Man has plied the sea for ages, so can there be anything new under the sun? The answer is, yes, there can. And it is really, really big. The New York Times had an interesting article on the new Triple-E class of ships that A. P. Moeller-Maersk of Denmark has been bringing into service (Aboard a Cargo Colossus, Oct 3). These things are immensely huge — longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. This video gives an idea of just how large these ships are.

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Much of operations is about standardization. There is much to be gained from building processes that are appropriately tailored to the task at hand and handling that task in the same “best” way every time. And then there is health care, where every patient is unique in some way and doing less is seen as an anathema. There is a very real possibility that not opting not to do some test or some procedure could lead to adverse outcomes for patients. However, not following best practices can lead to excessive cost.

The Wall Street Journal provides a nice example from a study at a small hospital system Christiana Care that made a conscious effort to get doctors to stick established best-practice guidelines (Hospitals Cut Costs by Getting Doctors to Stick to Guidelines, Sep 22). The procedure in question is cardiac telemetry, which is a monitoring technique, and how it should be used for patients that are not in an intensive care ward.

In cardiac telemetry, electrodes are used to monitor the heart for abnormal rhythms. To try to cut inappropriate use of the monitoring at Christiana Care, which operates two hospitals, a group of physicians redesigned the electronic system that doctors use to order tests and other care.

First, they removed the option to order telemetry for conditions not included in the [American Heart Association] guidelines. Doctors could get around this and order the monitoring, but they had to take an extra step to do so, according to Robert Dressler, who helped lead the study. “We didn’t want to get in the way of the bedside clinician who had a demonstrable concern” and wanted to use telemetry despite contradicting guidelines, he said.

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Cocktail capacity

Americans are drinking more hard liquor — particularly in fancy cocktails. If you run a bar, this is good news to the extent that mixed drinks typically sell for more than beer. But this is potentially also a problem. Mixing a complicated drink is more time-consuming than just drawing a beer so service slows down. Further, you need to have enough trained staff. If your bar is competing on offering a variety of fancy craft cocktails, you need to make sure you always have a competent mixologist behind the bar at all times.

But there are creative ways around this problem. According to the Wall Street Journal, bars are now putting some drinks on tap (Mixed Drinks on Tap: Faster Manhattans, Negronis and More, Sep 10).

As demand for creative craft cocktails shows no sign of slowing, bartenders have struggled with how to serve drinks quickly while preserving the taste. From small bars to hotel chains, they are making large batches of cocktails and connecting them to tap systems like those used for beer. And cocktails on tap, also called kegged or draft cocktails, make it easier to serve mixed drinks at large events.

“You can sell it with the speed of a draft beer. It’s the best of all possible worlds,” says Anthony Caporale, a cocktail consultant and representative for Drambuie, the whiskey liqueur that sponsors a competition for kegged cocktails.

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The history of manufacturing is to some extent the history of substituting capital for labor. Devising a way of making things that is more reliant on equipment (or an organizing principle like the Ford assembly line) allows workers to be more productive and generate more output per hour worked. But capital requires, you know, capital. Adding new equipment like robots requires an upfront investment and having that investment payoff depends on scale at which the business operates. Big firms like Roger-&-Me era GM can afford robots even if they have limited capabilities but smaller firms have a harder time taking the plunge. Until now that is, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed (Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories, Sep 17).

Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.

Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next. …

Small businesses often need flexibility “because they’re not just packaging cookies endlessly,” says Dan Kara, a robotics expert at ABI research, a market-research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Here is a graphic of describing some of the machines discussed in the article.

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Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are small chips that can convey information to a reader even if the reader does not have a direct line of sight to the chip. If a veterinarian ever convinced you to put a chip in your dog just in case Fido wandered off, you have in your house. In the retail industry, RFID chips have long been held up as a godsend — the fast track to more accurate inventory records updated in real time. Or at least they were ten years or so ago. But since then there have been challenges with costs as well as the underlying technology. Now, however, it appears a major retailer, Zara, is taking the plunge into RFID in a big way (Zara Builds Its Business Around RFID, Wall Street Journal, Sep 16).

By the end of this year, more than 1,000 of the 2,000 Zara stores will have the technology, with the rollout completed by 2016, Mr. Isla said.

The scale and speed of the project is drawing notice in the industry. The Spanish retailer says it bought 500 million RFID chips ahead of the rollout, or one of every six that apparel makers are expected to use globally this year, according to U.K.-based research firm IDtechEX. …

One benefit was on display on a recent morning, when store manager Graciela Martín supervised inventory-taking at one of Zara’s biggest outlets in Madrid. The task previously tied up a team of 40 employees for five hours, she said. That morning she and nine other workers sailed through the job in half the time, moving from floor to floor and waving pistol-shaped scanning devices that beeped almost continuously while detecting radio signals from each rack of clothing.

Before the chips were introduced, employees had to scan barcodes one at a time, Ms. Martín said, and these storewide inventories were performed once every six months. Because the chips save time, Zara carries out the inventories every six weeks, getting a more accurate picture of what fashions are selling well and any styles that are languishing.

This all raises the question of whether there is any reason to believe that it will be different this time. That is, is there any reason to believe that Zara’s implementation of RFID will be more successful than other big retailers who have gone done this road? Continue Reading »

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Marriott has been in the news this week for launching new program to prod its guests into leaving tips for its cleaning staffs. The hotel chain is not acting alone on this. It is working with Maria Shriver’s non-profit called A Woman’s Nation (AWN) to highlight the difficulties faced by hotel cleaning staff. Here is a bit from AWN’s website about the program.

A Woman’s Nation (AWN), together with Marriott International (NASDAQ: MAR), announced today that Marriott International will be the first partner in AWN’s The Envelope Please™ initiative, which is designed to encourage and enable hotel guests to express their gratitude by leaving tips and notes of thanks for hotel room attendants in designated envelopes provided in hotel rooms.

Hotel room attendants often go unnoticed, as they silently care for the millions of travelers who are on the road at any given time. Because hotel guests do not always see or interact with room attendants, their hard work is many times overlooked when it comes to tipping. The Envelope Please makes leaving them a gratuity simple and secure.

Or as a headline in New York magazine summarized the program: Multi-Billion-Dollar Hotel Chain Encourages You to Tip Its Workers

There is a no question in my mind that being a hotel maid is a hard way to make a living — particularly at nicer hotels like the typical Marriott. Guests want their room serviced on their schedule; management wants workers to be efficient and service rooms as quickly as possible; and if all goes well, the room attendant gets no real recognition. Combine that with low entry requirements (basically a clean background check and the ability to do physical work), and you get low pay. Tips then would be much appreciated. Even if a maid only gets two dollars per room and services just two rooms an hour, that extra four bucks would be a significant percentage increase. According to the Washington Post, “maids and housekeepers earned a median salary of $19,780, or approximately $9.51 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But is tipping room attendants a good idea? Continue Reading »

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