Pie In The Sky

I’m a systems thinker. Usually this is a welcome gift that helps me identify issues that adversely affect performance, and therefore implement simple solutions. Other times it is almost like some sort of weird curse, as I haven’t yet found the ‘off’ switch. It’s like wearing 3-D glasses (or ‘systems goggles’) all the time. The below example illustrates this. At first it might not seem that relevant to the policing environment, but believe me, it is.

During a short holiday recently I was lucky enough to find a traditional ‘Pie and Mash’ shop, where I ate the best pie and mash I have ever had in my life, hands down. These guys really know their business: simple menu, quality food, very fair prices, and marvellous surroundings. The only problem I noticed as I waited for my pie to arrive was that their system was all wrong.

Within minutes of opening, the relatively small establishment was packed, and hungry diners awaited their choice of about nine different sorts of home-made, freshly cooked pies. There were five members of staff on duty, including the lady who I assume was the owner. What struck me first was that she seemed to be doing nearly everything herself. She was taking the orders, going to the counter, then telling other members of staff which type of pie to fetch out of the oven. She would then take the lid off a huge pot of mash (and another of peas, if desired), and plate it up herself. (No matter how busy the place became, I didn’t see anyone else spoon the mash or peas onto customers’ plates). Once plated, sometimes she took the food to the table herself; other times she instructed one of the other staff members to do it. The impression I formed was that it was not so much a team effort, but a one-woman show, occasionally assisted by ad hoc helpers.

What began to happen because of this was that the system kept stalling, and customers were kept waiting unnecessarily. Other staff members seemed to be uncertain about their roles, and were apparently unable to take the initiative in respect of taking orders or even putting mashed potatoes onto the pie-laden plates waiting to go out. There were periods where they stood around apparently waiting for the go-ahead to do something. This meant that service was sub-optimised.

Now I know we are not talking about life-and-death here, just pies, but the principles behind making this very small system operate effectively apply equally to any system. The ideal  process in this case should look something like the following diagram:

Pie Flowchart (Ideal)

Nice and simple, as short as possible, and designed from the customer’s perspective. Perfect.

Unfortunately, what was actually occurring was this:

Pie Flowchart (Actual)

(The ‘D’-shaped stages represent delays; the grey ‘D’ also represents a handover).

Already it becomes apparent that there are additional unnecessary stages that cause delays. There is also a handover (or hand-off, whichever term you prefer), at the point where the owner tells one of the others to put a particular pie on a plate. Handovers, by definition of their existence, drive waste into the process. It doesn’t matter how ‘clean’ a handover is, if it’s there at all then the process is longer, the likelihood of errors increases, and the system is rendered less efficient. Now also consider that whilst the process pauses for the owner to carry out the critical action of putting mash onto a plate, the other staff members are not gainfully employed. All they can do is wait to see if the owner will deliver the food to the table herself, or if she will ask one of them to do it (another handover).

Whilst I was there, a couple of such handovers went wrong and people got the wrong pies. This was  not a major issue, but a smoother system would reduce the likelhood of this happening at all. The place had become too busy for the system to cope in its current state; indeed the existing design practically guarantees these sorts of hiccups will occur. In the meantime, new customers were coming in and waiting at the counter unattended as the owner was running round like a mad thing taking orders at tables. None of the other staff members tended to emerge from the back room unless summoned to carry out a particular task by the owner. (Greeting new customers did not appear to be one of these).

Then there’s the bottlenecks. The design of the current system meant that at many points, one person (the owner) was carrying out a task, whilst the other four staff members were disengaged. If for whatever reason, the owner had set up the system so that only she could carry out certain tasks (e.g. putting the mash on the plates), this meant that the whole process could only move through that stage at the speed of one person. If she was otherwise engaged at that time carrying out another function (e.g. taking payments from customers), then this had the doubly unfortunate effect of actually delaying the bottleneck! In the meantime there were four other staff members who probably would have been more than capable of carrying out one or more of these straightforward functions had they been permitted to do so. This would have kept the process flowing.

Now let’s just stop for a minute and consider what the purpose of the pie shop is, and what the owner would want to achieve. I presume it would be something like:

“Sell excellent food at a fair price and please the customer”. (Oh, and make a profit too).

There is no doubt that the first two points were achieved, but the current system actually increases the possibility that the latter two aims will be impeded. Here’s why:

If one were to consider the process applying critical path analysis it would highlight the frequent pauses and bottlenecks that prevent all five members of staff from being productive simultaneously, and which intermittently stop the process altogether. Too much emphasis is on one person owning tasks within the process (the owner), and whilst she is taking orders, she can’t be plating up mash etc. If the other staff members are not empowered to greet customers, take orders, or even put mashed potato onto plates then not only will this affect the pride they are able to take in their work, but they are being paid to stand around. This is not their fault. They did not appear to be lazy or unwilling, and the owner probably just wanted to make sure things were done properly, so she chose to do them herself. The fault lies with the system. And only management can act upon the system.

If the system contains avoidable pauses, bottlenecks, handovers and under-utilised staff, then this is a recipe for delays and therefore dissatisfied customers. It also means that the end-to-end time for a customer’s visit is unnecessarily extended, and this of course impacts on the venue’s overall capacity. (I was there when potential customers were turned away as there were no seats available). Also, considering I was the third customer to enter the restaurant after it opened, and all the pies were freshly baked and ready to serve (as well as the mash and peas), it took over twenty minutes for the food to land on my table. Others were waiting a similar amount of time for their food. A twenty minute delay per table adds up to a lot of missed opportunities when customers are being turned away all day. Think of the improved customer experience and increased profits that would flow from a more efficient system.

So what’s the solution? Easy! First of all, the pie shop owner should establish the capacity of the system. I wouldn’t expect they would have have carried out any analysis to find out how many customers per day they have, or measured end-to-end times for customers, for example. This would elicit useful information about the capacity of the venue throughout the day and assist in determining how many staff might be required. More importantly, a proper understanding of the process, stage by stage, would highlight blockages and inefficiencies. Only then can an improved system be designed against the business’s purpose (see above).

An improved system would take into account the best way that each staff member can contribute towards achieving the purpose as part of a team, and this could involve removing the limited responsibilities most of them seem to have under the current structure. Is there any reason why any of them cannot take an order, fetch the pie out of the oven, add the mash (and peas) then deliver it to the table? This solution represents the purest systemic design, where the process is owned throughout by one person, who is responsible for their own contribution throughout. It is the shortest possible version of the process (see the ideal process, above), and it also eliminates the need for handovers.

This version of the pie process could easily reduce the average waiting time from twenty minutes down to two or three minutes. It would result in increased capacity as there would be a faster turnover of customers throughout the day, as well as happier customers, thereby generating even more customers and more profit. Happy customers become repeat customers, and also introduce more happy customers through word of mouth. Simply serving a quality product at a fair price is not enough.

An alternative model could involve one person performing the traditional front-of-house role, with other staff members owning specific areas of responsibility, for example, receiving the order then plating it up, with another delivering the food to the table. This does carry some risks (from a systems purist’s perspective) as it involves handovers, but anything is better than the current model. At least individuals would have clear roles, and the impact on the flow of the work would be minimal as there are no bottlenecks where everyone is waiting for the owner to finish doing something so she can do the next thing. The current model is so restrictive that it is not much more productive than if the owner was the only person in the room doing everything herself. There is a lot of potential to be unlocked in the staff that would significantly increase productivity and capacity, but which is currently neglected.

By trusting staff to act in the interests of the system (and business) this would ensure that they are gainfully employed, but more importantly, remove the current examples of pauses, handovers and bottlenecks. What are the risks in letting one of the others put the mash on the plates: perhaps they might give the customer slightly too much or too little? Even so, the impact is negligible and extending this responsibility to others far outweighs the negative effects of the inbuilt systemic delays and bottlenecks inherent within the existing process.

If these systemic changes were made, I guarantee that the pie shop’s system would be exponentially more productive, with an increased customer base, happier customers, increased turnover and profit, but best of all, fulfilled staff members who can take pride in knowing that they contribute directly to the purpose as part of a real team. The owner would also feel as though she has so much more time as she would be taking less strain by trying to do everything herself. Let the system carry the burden!

Anyway, this story involves pies. What does this have to do with policing or wider systems considerations? Well, the lessons of this story have wider implications for effective systems no matter whether you operate in the private or public sector. There are some common themes and a basic set of principles which will guarantee a better system (and therefore improved performance, efficiency and service delivery), regardless of the setting:

  •        Define a clear purpose.
  •        Analyse and understand the existing system before you try and alter it.
  •        Design your system against purpose.
  •        Remove waste, handovers, pauses and bottlenecks.
  •        Empower staff to work as a team.

If you want to be really clever you should also consider devising measures that track whether the purpose is achieved, and plot the data on an SPC chart (see my other blogs) to understand the capablity of the redesigned system. This will enable you to identify levers for further improvement.

I was going to draw a parallel with a police example, but I’ve gone on long enough now, and perhaps it makes sense for you to draw your own comparisons with systems you are familiar with.

A final note to the pie shop owner: if you read this and realise it’s about your shop, I would like to commend you on the fantastic quality of your pies. If you decide to implement any of the changes I have suggested, my optional ‘consultancy fee’ is one of those lovely Steak and Stout pies I had the other day please…

A final note to the reader: Just in case you are still wondering if I have too much time on my hands, I’ve been considering alternative titles, for example:

“Who ate all the pies?”

“Whose pie is it anyway?”

“Implementing an effective pie delivery process from a systems perspective: An essay”.

See you next time.

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About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I have a big problem with numerical targets, unnecessary bureaucracy, and anything else that stops police officers from providing the best possible service. I believe that by adopting a systems approach, policing can be transformed beyond the wildest expectations of many.
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6 Responses to Pie In The Sky

  1. Dave Hasney says:

    Ah “Pie Shop Policing” – I know it so well:-)

  2. Blue Eyes says:

    I’ve never worked in a restaurant but often wondered how they manage to get customer’s orders right, I guess experienced staff know the relative timings down to the second etc. but it seems fiendishly complicated. In a pie shop there is a lot less to go wrong because all they are doing is serving.

    I think this style of management which I call the “Can’t Let Go” School is very common. Often it becomes self-perpetuating because managees lose the confidence to take responsibility for their role. It’s very inefficient and very damaging.

    Good post.

  3. Huw Sayer says:

    Pies, police, and processes – an excellent post by @InspGuilfoyle with valuable lessons for anyone responsible for perfect performances.

    Reminds me of the excruciating experience of shopping in Foyles (no relation I hope to Insp Guilfoyle) on Tottenham Court Road many years ago, which went something like this (forgive me if I’ve skipped a few steps – for obvious reasons I did not try this too often):
    1) hunt for book (which I think were organised by publisher first – then subject and author);
    2) take book to counter – exchange book for ticket;
    3) take ticket to cashier – pay cashier and get ticket stamped;
    4) return to counter and exchange ticket for book;
    5) move to next floor if you wanted another book from a different section – repeat process –
    6) Aggghhh!

    Don’t know if it’s still like this but even as a kid I knew this wasn’t the way to treat customers (though, oddly, many seemed to like it this way).

    • Blue Eyes says:

      When I used to spend hours at a time in Foyle’s as a kid it never occurred to me to buy anything. I loved that place, it felt like there were nooks where nobody had set foot for decades. I haven’t been in recently but I fear it may look no different from the average Waterstones these days.

  4. Dave says:

    Delays and inefficiencies in your pie shop will result in a loss of business and possible bankruptcy. However, similar problems in the police or indeed any state-run organisation are a job creation opportunity. If the police ever ran a pie shop, they’d go out of business within the week.

  5. localresident says:

    Dave, Really? Mr Guilfoyle runs a police team and he seems to have the issue nailed. Maybe worth you looking behind the stereotype and realising there’s some pretty effective public servants out there….

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