There is an interesting article on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal (“Latest Starbucks Buzzword: ‘Lean’ Japanese Techniques,” Aug 4, 2009). It concerns Starbucks’ efforts to improve in-store operations by implementing lean techniques. The article describes how a team of lean experts is visiting stores, observing how the staff carries out its tasks and then restructures work to avoid unnecessary movement and other non-value added tasks. If you have an account for the online version of the Journal, they have a spiffy interactive graphic that shows a number of the resulting changes at one store. These are all aimed at increasing speed and (to some extent) the quality of the customer interaction. They do not change the actual production of the product per se. For example, the urns holding brewed coffee (as opposed to your espresso products) are moved to the front counter. Thus the barista does not have to walk or turn his/her back to the customer in order to fill the order.
This is a fun application to think about but it also may highlight the difference between adopting lean tools and becoming a lean organization. On the one hand, a number of the changes described are straight out of the Toyota playbook on how to lay out the work station. Toyota may worry about how far an assembly line work must reach to grab a wrench while Starbucks is looking at how far the reach is for vanilla syrup but it is the same basic idea.
On the other hand, the true power of the Toyota production system is the organization’s ability to develop, implement and share new knowledge. Steve Spear makes this argument very convincingly in his recent book, Chasing the Rabbit. (Aside: This is the best business book I have read in several years. Disclaimer: I was in grad school with Spear before he wised up and decamped for a stuffy east coast institution.) Spear quite convincingly argues that Toyota and other leading companies succeed because the current process both encapsulates the organizations current best knowledge of how to do the work as well as having the flexibility to experiment to divine a better way to do the process. Intuitively, it has to help Toyota that they have a relatively limited number of facilities and employees with relatively long tenures. “Relative” here is with respect to Starbucks. Starbucks has over 7,000 company-owned stores and over 4,000 licensed stores in the US. If your lean team is all of 10 people (as reported in the article), it sounds like folks will be spending a lot of time on the road just to do initial process improvements. How you work in refocusing the culture to embrace dynamically improving processes over time is a little unclear.