Thought of the Day: The modern assembly line: Starbucks!

With the service sector’s share making up 80% of the US economy. I have focused some of my recent interviews on service design and delivery. Namely, how companies plan and organize people to provide better services around its products for its customers. 

One of the first companies that came to mind in the service economy is Starbucks, especially after they recently purchased my favorite bread place in San Francisco: Le Boulanger 

(When I tell people that Starbucks is a good indicator of the economy, they often comment on the number of unemployed people or consultants who spend their day working out their Starbucks office. This is especially the case, if they know that I do some of my best writing at the Starbucks in the San Francisco Presidio area.)

So, last night I did a Google search on Starbucks and came across an August 4, 2009 Wall Street Journal Article entitled Latest Starbucks Buzzword: ‘Lean’ Japanese Techniques.  The article discusses how the company wanted to be more lean and agile in order to improve its ability to service customers faster and more efficiently without sacrificing excellent customer service. 

When I go into a Starbucks, however, it often reminds me more of a traditional assembly line. An assembly line that is similar to the one that Henry Ford developed for automobiles by leveraging blue-collar workers. These people rolled up their sleeves, focused on a single task and helped kick the country into high gear growth. While they made up a large percentage of the population, I would hardly call them participants in a lean and agile process.

Ford reinvented how factories were designed and how work was conducted. One of the main principles of the Henry Ford assembly line was: “to place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.”(Source: Wikipedia) 

Doesn’t this sound a bit like Starbucks? Interestingly, though, many of today’s service oriented companies’ look like assembly lines. And while this might have been true for most fast food establishments, Starbucks seems to be establishing a new trend by having it’s front line workers be college educated workers.

Recently, I walked into a Starbucks on Cape Cod and did a little research. I sat down with the manager who told me that 80% of her employees are college educated and 20% are currently working on a college diploma. She also told me that 100 people apply for every open position. These numbers reinforce the challenges our economy faces. There are many well-educated college students who are now Barista Assembly Line Workers. 

I have done this research at 10 Starbucks so far, and so far the numbers above seem slightly skewed towards more educated workers. However, this does seem to be the trend  — there are many smart, energetic and ambitious people behind the counter wearing green and white.

During my online research, I also discovered that Starbucks has actually asked its employees to slow down their service (or as we say in California ‘take a deep breath first’) so as not to mimic a fast food assembly line image. Seems like that’s quite a challenge. Even though the customer service is usually great, many of the baristas seem to be repeating a similar process over and over.

Is this a good thing? Let me know at