Harmon on BPM: Trouble at Starbucks

A good process analyst needs to be the master of a number of different disciplines. An analyst must be good at defining goals, and determining that a given process contributes to specific corporate goals. Similarly, he or she must be able to quickly come up with some idea of the costs of achieving the goals and decide if process changes will be justified. The analyst must be able to define flows, identify decision points and the nature of important decisions, and determine if the various effects of defective environments, people or technologies contribute to the overall problems he or she identifies. There are, of course, different methods appropriate to different classes of problems.

This month I want to focus on people problems – on thinking clearly about what’s involved in getting human performers to do specific tasks. There are all kinds of books and methodologies that seek to address human performance change. I generally recommend that those new to the field spend some time learning about the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), a professional association of people who seek to pull together a number of different human performance improvement approaches into a more-or-less consistent methodology. [1]

Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that ISPI considers both the human performer and the supervisors who manage the performer. It considers both motivation and the skill and knowledge required to perform. One of my favorite “thought experiments” that ISPI’ers often employ was originally suggested by Tom Gilbert. You consider a given performance situation and ask if the performer could do the task if you held a gun to his or her head and threatened to kill them if they didn’t do the task. If under such duress the employee could manage to do the task, then you have a motivation problem. The employee can do it – it’s a matter of arranging the contingencies to make the employee want to do it. If, on the other hand, even faced with being shot in the head, the employee fails to do the task, you have a skill-knowledge problem. The employee doesn’t know how to do that task and can’t do it, even if his or her life depends on it. You will need to provide training and practice to provide the employee with skills or knowledge required to do the task.

I don’t mean to suggest that ISPI is all about tricks and gimmicks, but the people in the organization have thought hard about the basic problems of improving human performance and they have a good understanding of the basics.

I thought about this during the past week because the US media have been full of stories about an incident that occurred in a Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia. Two Afro-American men came in and sat down at a table without ordering anything. After a few minutes, one went up to the counter and asked if he could use the restroom and the counter person explained that they had a policy of not letting non-customers use the restroom. The man explained that he and his friend were waiting for a third man to have a business discussion, and returned to his seat. Someone in the store then called the police, who arrived and asked the two men to leave the store. They argued with the police and were arrested. The incident was videotaped by another customer who put it online. (The third man whom the other two were waiting for arrived as the arrest was taking place and joined in the confusion.) Later the two men were released from jail when it was decided that they wouldn’t be charged with trespassing.

The incident was immediately cited as an example of racism, and the online video went viral. The CEO of Starbucks arranged to visit the two men within a couple of days and apologized, and Starbucks promptly announced that it would be closing all its US stores, later in the month, for one day of training for its employees. The firm hired to develop the training has a reputation for doing sensitivity training in racial matters.

Now, it’s possible that the senior management of Starbucks doesn’t care about the huge cost of closing all its stores and paying its employees to spend the time in a training class – even if the class is unlikely to solve the problem it faces. The company may justify the entire exercise as a PR exercise – as an effort to show the public that it really wants to solve the problem and will go to a great expense to do so. If that’s the case, then this really isn’t a training, or even a human performance issue, as such, but a public relations effort that should be judged by a different set of criteria.

Let’s assume, however, that senior management is at least partially concerned with changing what happens in its stores.

First, let’s step back from the specific store or incident, and ask if Starbucks has an explicit policy or rules that pertain to this specific incident. Does a Starbucks manager have and study a manual that provides policies or rules about how to handle customers. I assume it does and that they do. I assume they have some general statements about the kind of customer atmosphere Starbucks tries to create and maintain, and I assume it has rules as to how to deal with specific types of incidents. For example, I could easily imagine that they recommend that the manager call the police if a drunken individual enters the store and starts to hassle other customers. More specifically, do they have policies or rules about situations in which individuals seem to be using Starbucks as a meeting place without buying anything? This is a hard thing to be precise about, obviously, because two individuals may be sitting and talking while simply waiting for another, intending to order when the third arrives. Or the individuals may simply choose Starbuck’s as a place to meet, wait until everyone arrives, then leave to go somewhere else.

It turns out that Starbucks (or at least the specific store) has a policy that states that restrooms are for paying customers. One of the two men went up and asked about using a restroom and was told of that policy and that he couldn’t use the restroom.

No one has said that this Starbucks had a reputation for hassling black customers, nor were there previous incidents reported. On the other hand, some have suggested that two white businessmen, sitting but not ordering, would not have been hassled. And it was stated that they previously turned down white non-customers who wanted to use their restrooms. This is a sensitive situation that’s a challenge for even the best intended management. We aren’t dealing with racist policies here – we may be dealing with some employees or a local manager who was a bit too quick to react to people perceived to be taking up space without buying anything – something that annoys many retail people, but is usually tolerated if it doesn’t get out of hand.

So, from a process perspective – what, if anything, can be done to improve the situation?

Before we can think of training employees to deal with problems, we need to consider what a solution actually looks like. If we can’t define the problem and an appropriate solution, then you really aren’t in a position to tell people what to do when you sit them down in a training class.

So any solution to the Starbucks problem begins with a consideration of corporate policies. What constitutes a situation that justifies calling for the police? What constitutes a situation in which a verbal comment is appropriate? Just trying to state policies of this kind is difficult. Assuming Starbucks can come up with some explicit policies and rules, I suspect it will still find that deciding exactly when to act will come down to common sense and judgement.

If a drunk is sleeping it off at a table and few people are in the restaurant, that’s one thing. If the guy is doing the same thing during the noon rush hour, that’s another, etc.

What we would really like to assure, however, in this case, is that any policies or rules be applied in a race-blind way. Whatever our policies are about people who sit but don’t buy anything, we want to be sure it’s applied without regard to whether the individuals are white, Asian, or Afro-American. That certainly can be stated as an unambiguous policy.

So where are we? Starbucks is going to have a national training day – that’s probably mostly a PR matter. What it probably needs is a training hour. It needs to get all of its managers and employees together and state some new, explicit policies and rules – one of which is to very careful to assure that all policies and rules are applied in a color-blind manner.

Someone may not understand this, but once it’s clearly stated, it’s hard to imagine anyone at Starbucks will be confused as to management’s stated policies. So the total “training time” should be about an hour.

But what employees, and some local managers, will really want to know is whether or not management is serious about this policy. That’s because this ultimately isn’t a training issue, it’s a motivational issue. The question is what consequences management will impose on those who don’t adhere to its policy. How will management monitor compliance? How long will this continue to be important?

Without knowing more than we know about the specific incident in Philadelphia, I think we assume that some local employee or manager over-reacted to a problem that he or she would have been better to ignore. With more specific guidance in place, and with clearer guidelines, I assume the same thing is less likely to happen in the future. The mere fact of the nationwide meeting will send a powerful message to all employees to be more sensitive to this problem in the future.

The long term solution assumes a management policy and actions to communicate a continuing concern. The company must be willing to immediately discipline or fire employees who cross specific rules put in place following this incident. It may be hard, as we note – these are hard to define situations that rely on common sense – but management can always make it clear that they want everyone to bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of insensitivity, and back that up with discipline when instances of insensitivity occur.

Some will think this a stretch for process analysts, but in times when the focus on customers has never been greater, it’s an issue every process analyst needs to think about. It requires thinking seriously about policies and business rules and how they effect the environment in which business processes occur. And it requires understanding of how important managers and supervisors are in defining how employees perform. If supervisors display temperance and common sense themselves and intolerance when an employee cross lines, they go a long way to assure that policies and business rules are enforced. Senior management must put policies and programs in place to assure that supervisors behave as they should to assure that employees do too.

Using these techniques to fine tune an organization to assure that its processes create good products and happy customers is the essence of great business process work.


[1] For more information on ISPI, see www.ispi.org. ISPI offers a number of publications and has meetings at intervals throughout the year.

Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of BPTrends Associates, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in Las Vegas. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.info

Speak Your Mind