A Latte with Deming: How I learned to stop blaming employees

There is a coffee shop in southern Stockholm where I have taken the habit of procuring my morning shot of coffee. There’s nothing special about the place, devoid of charm and located at the busy entrance of a metro station, but the coffee’s pretty good. I always order a double latte with an additional carrot-and-orange juice. One nice touch is that they put cardboard holders around hot paper cups, making them less uncomfortable to hold.

The coffee shop is managed by a middle-aged man, often working in the back room. The best thing about the place is probably not the coffee, but the young, female shop-assistant, who’s very service-minded and efficient.

This morning routine of mine hummed along nicely until one day a couple of weeks ago when, to my concern, I was met by two girls behind the counter. The new girl looked very confused. During the following weeks, the training period I assume, the new and old assistant worked side by side, but after that, the one I was used to was gone.

The new girl sucked!

This wouldn’t have bothered me much if it wasn’t for this: The new girl sucked! They switched from a shop-assistant that was fast, accurate, and pleasant to one that was slow, morose, and careless. She never greeted me with a smile. She didn’t recognise me and didn’t thank me for my business. She always managed to mix up my order in some way, like handing me the wrong type of juice. Worst of all, she was slow, a deadly sin for time-pressed commuters.

After several unpleasant encounters with the new shop-assistant my verdict was set: She had to go! I mean, she’s obviously unsuited for the task. Clearly, she doesn’t understand what service is about. How come the manager hasn’t seen that? I resolved to speak to the manager as soon as possible and make him understand just how lousy she was at her job.

Then I switched on my brain.

Who is responsible for her level of service?

This was my reasoning: How come I was so quick to hand out blame? She’s only had two weeks of training on the job. I don’t think service was part of that informal, on-the-job training. What if nobody ever told her that smiling was part of the job? I could see she was definitely trying her best, given the situation and her training. It seems the first clerk had a natural talent for what is required in a service profession, whereas neither the manager nor the new clerk understood it or cared. And who is responsible for her level of service?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the manager is by-and-large responsible. The was I see it, there are two possibilities: Either, good service is unknown to him too, or, he has failed to observe, train, and inspire his new employee in a satisfactory manner. Either way, in my opinion, he’s at fault.

Correcting systemic problems can only be management’s responsibility.

This is a thing I have seen many times over the years as a software consultant. If you look deeply enough into any human, organisation or process problem that a team experiences, you almost always reach a question for management. Most employees actually try their best and work hard. Typically, you find a systemic problem, something about how the whole company is organised and run, something way beyond the power of a typical co-worker or team. In these cases, working harder makes no difference. As W. Edwards Deming postulated long ago, correcting systemic problems can only be management’s responsibility.

Who’s really failing here?

Intuitively, many people object to this. How could the sub-par performance of an employee be the manager’s fault? Are employees babies that need to be pampered? What about individual accountability? Well, of course there are individual variations of performance, but what lies behind? Perhaps the coffee shop-assistant hasn’t yet understood the value and execution of great customer service? It’s the manager’s job to help her find the joy in doing it. Has he clearly explained to her why she’s there? Has he observed the customer exchanges with quick feedback? Has he asked the customers what they think? Is the process under statistical control? Has he pointed out to her all the different ways she could learn and excel as a barista? Has he made her responsible for the customer service process, including its continuous improvement? Has he included her in his vision of the place, what he wants to make of it? And so on.

Until he does, who’s really failing here?

3 thoughts on “A Latte with Deming: How I learned to stop blaming employees

  1. Well said. Also the manager may well have done a bad job when hiring. Once that is done, I believe the company has a duty to provide many opportunities for the person to prosper with the company. But hiring is often one of the most critical mistakes made and then it is compounded by bad systems that don’t provide the training and systems that let employees provide great service.

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