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If you live here in the States, you may never have heard of the telecommunications company EE. But they are a major player in the United Kingdom with brands like Orange and T-Mobile. According to their Wikipedia page, they have around 28 million customers. EE has a new service offering that I must admit is kind of intriguing. Here is how it is described on their web page.

Priority answer service

From 6 August 2014 we’re also introducing a priority answer service. It’s available to all customers on pay monthly and SIM only plans.

Our priority answer service gives you the choice to get support even faster for just 50p per call when you call 150 and want to speak to customer services. It’s always available so if there’s a queue, you can be moved towards the front – ideal if you’re in a hurry.

How much it costs

The charge for this is 50p. If you’re on a plan that includes standard charging for customer services at 25p, you’ll only be charged an extra 25p for priority answer – so the total for the call with priority is 50p.

The 50p charge applies regardless of how long the call lasts.

To save the Americans the trouble of Googling this, 50p works out to about 84¢. So what do you think happens when customers are given the chance to jump the queue for less than a buck?

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Here is an interesting factoid for you: 24% of all the vehicles manufactured right now are built on just ten platforms. What’s more, by the end of the decade that number is expected to grow to 30%. The number comes from an Automotive News article that looks at some of the consequences of the trend (With the push for standard parts, quality is key, Aug 6).

First, why automakers are trying to move in this direction is clear. Being able to build multiple model off one basic platform saves a ton of money in product development as well as tooling and build manufacturing facilities. Further, they benefit from a bit of risk pooling; if one model is not selling particularly well, that may be offset by another that can be built at the same plant. Thus, even if a model slumps, all that expensive capacity is till being used. (See this post from last fall on how Ford is cutting its number of platforms from 15 to 9.) Globalization also plays a part in this. What kinds of vehicles sell well might vary across different continents, but if European, Asian and North American models can all be built on the same platforms, manufacturers with a global footprint can be ever more cost competitive.

But what about suppliers? With purchased components making up a significant chunk of the cost of a vehicle, car makers would like standardization there. In a perfect world, you would have the same break system on every model built on a platform, but that brings challenges.

“The requirement that we face is clearly to develop products from the outset in such a way that they can be used in all the platform derivatives without the expense of making changes,” said Sabine Woytowicz, regional quality director at Valeo in Germany.

But with mass standardization, a part with a quality problem can now be supplied to millions of vehicles. That puts a premium on quality. …

Martin Thier, director of corporate quality management at the Mahle Group, said: “When obtaining an order, we check its feasibility for both product development and manufacturing even more closely.”

It comes down to “knowing precisely what you do, what you can do and how good you are at it.”

For example, he said, there is now a more intense interest in investigating how an inconsequential error in one part would produce an effect in a different component.

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Would you be more likely to go to fast food restaurant if it guaranteed how long you wait at the drive thru? Some McDonald’s in South Florida are doing just that (McDonald’s offers a 60-second lunch guarantee on weekdays, Aug 4).

McDonald’s guests at participating South Florida restaurants will receive timers when paying for their order in the drive-thru. The timers are then returned to the McDonald’s crew member when their food is presented. This guarantee promises that customers will receive their meal within 60 seconds of paying for it, or receive a complimentary lunch item on a future visit.

The guarantee doesn’t apply all day. Indeed, it is only in effect for an hour — but it is the hour that matters, noon to one.

Let me acknowledge upfront that this is clearly a gimmick. McDonald’s has been in a funk and their drive thru times have been climbing (along with the time of many in the industry). So this offers customers some assurance and maybe puts a little competitive pressure on some of the other players in the industry.

But as gimmicks go, I kind of like this one. Continue Reading »

I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

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How to get people onto planes is an interesting topic. It is a process most of us go through with some regularity and it is hard not to think that there has to be a better way. There are many articles in the popular press explaining that in many ways airlines are doing it wrong (for an example, see this recent Quartz article). Academics like publishing papers on new methodologies that purport to work better — even if their approach is at best whimsical (would an airline assign seats based on who has carry on luggage?). But what if the secret to a smooth boarding process was really in the gate area not in the jet bridge or plane aisle?

That essentially is the premise of some work reported in the Wall Street Journal (In Tests, Scientists Try to Change Behaviors, Jul 28).

At the Copenhagen airport, Dr. Hansen recently deployed a team of three young researchers to mill about a gate in terminal B. The trio was dressed casually in jeans and wore backpacks. They blended in with the passengers, except for the badges they wore displaying airport credentials, and the clipboards and pens they carried to record how the boarding process unfolds. …

The researchers are mapping out gate-seating patterns for a total of about 500 flights. Some early observations: The more people who are standing, the more chaotic boarding tends to be. Copenhagen airport seating areas are designed for groups, even though most travelers come solo or in pairs. Solo flyers like to sit in a corner and put their bag on an adjacent seat. Pairs of travelers tend to perch anywhere as long as they can sit side-by-side.

For the next stage of the project, the airport has given the researchers permission to change seating configurations at some terminal gates to figure out which arrangements are most likely to encourage greater numbers of passengers to sit down and help make the boarding process more orderly. Among possible ideas the team is considering are expanding the number of spots that could encourage single travelers to sit and placing signs with updates about the status of the boarding in key locations.

When people are uncertain about the process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.

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Why do you stand in line? In many Western countries, that is a silly question. You stand in line because that is what you do. Whether waiting to check out at the supermarket or get into a ballgame, standing in line is the norm. You stand in line because everyone else is standing in line. However, as a National Post article points out, standing in line is very much a cultural phenomenon and not just some inherent human trait (Everyone line up: Canada’s tradition of orderly queuing ‘foreign and strange’ to many newcomers, Jul 25).

“Lining up is seen as a universal sort of truth,” said J.J. McCullough, the Vancouver-based author of J.J.’s Complete Guide to Canada, an online primer for newcomers. “And if someone doesn’t adhere to the protocol then it must be because they’re uncouth or uncivilized, rather that this is a sort of idiosyncratic tradition that we’ve internalized.” …

At the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette, located in London, Ont., lineup training comes on the same day students are taught about North American-style introductions. Students are taught where to line up, how to maintain one’s proper place in the lineup and — most importantly — how close to stand.

“In certain cultures, queue etiquette is just not on the radar,” said school director Wendy Mencel.

So where does this tradition come from?

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Have you ever wished you could tell the TSA what to do with itself? Now, you have that opportunity — at least when it comes to how they organize and manage their queues. To make things even better, they might actually pay you! The Transportation Security Administration has posted a challenge asking for people to develop a simulation model to tackle the capacity management issues of getting people through airport security. If you are interested in the challenge, the official call is here. Here are some of the specific considerations that need to be tackled:

TSA is looking for the Next Generation Checkpoint Queue Design Model to apply a scientific and simulation modeling approach to meet the dynamic security screening environment. The new queue design should include, but not limited to the following queue lanes:

  • TSA Pre✓™
  • Standard
  • Premier Passengers (1st class, business class, frequent fliers, etc.)
  • Employee and Flight Crews
  • PWD (wheelchair access)

The Challenge is to provide a simulation modeling concept that can form the basis to plan, develop requirements, and design a queue appropriately. The concept will be used to develop a model to be applied in decision analysis and to take in considerations of site specific requirements, peak and non-peak hours, flight schedules and TSA staffing schedules. Solvers are expected to provide the concept and provide evidence that it works as described in the requirements.

According to Nextgov.com, there are specific performance targets for different classes of customers (Attention, Passengers: $15,000 Prize for Whoever Can Speed TSA Screening, Jul 18)

The line, in this scenario, extends from the point where a passenger joins the end of the queue to the metal detector or body scan machine.

The rules for the challenge state wait times cannot be more than 5 minutes for PreCheck and 10 minutes for standard lines.

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