I never plan to write blog posts – ideas just tend to pop into my head when doing random stuff. Today was one of those days. What follows isn’t particularly exciting, shocking or controversial, and no doubt I will be mercilessly ribbed by certain people for noticing another systems thinking lesson in such a drab, everyday context. I suppose I deserve it.
Yes, my high-octane Sunday afternoon inspiration arose from the mundane setting of a local supermarket. I noticed this particular supermarket adopts a slightly different policy at the checkout – instead of you bagging up your shopping at the checkout whilst items are being scanned, the till operator scans your shopping at the speed of light as you frantically throw items back into your trolley once they have been scanned. Next, customers wheel their trolleys to one side and only then can they put their shopping into carrier bags.
At first I couldn’t help noticing how fast the queues were moving at the tills. I was impressed. (I’m easily impressed). I wondered whether not allowing customers time to bag up their purchases whilst at the till was in fact a better way of running a checkout system, as it appeared to cause the flow of customers to move faster. Being a proper systems geek I gave this some thought as I was chucking my items back into the trolley and continued to muse over the pros and cons of the approach as I subsequently bagged up my beer, crisps and other essentials.
The conclusion I came to was counterintuitive. On the surface, this supermarket chain’s policy of not letting customers put items straight into their bags whilst at the checkout seems like a great idea for initiating faster throughput and reducing queuing time. But is it all smoke and mirrors?
I think so, and here’s why:
- The time spent standing at the checkout is only part of the process; therefore if I was sad enough to stand at the tills with a stopwatch and work out the average time per customer, the results would not reflect the true end-to-end time.
- When attempting to understand any process, the most important thing is to consider it from the perspective of the customer (or service user). In this case, when the customer moves away from the checkout, he or she still has to contend with the unfinished business of packing carrier bags. Therefore the end-to-end time for what matters to the customer extends to when their bags are finally packed. This approach actually stretches that out, rather than shorten it.
- I couldn’t help but feel that the act of hurriedly putting my scanned items back into the trolley was waste activity. Why would you want to put your stuff back in the trolley, only to take it out again a few moments later to place into carrier bags? This stage of the process does not exist at all in the traditional model – it does not add value and is therefore waste.
- If you are relatively organised regarding how you put your shopping on the conveyor belt in the first place (e.g. heavy things first) then if you bag it up as you go along, your bags are nicely packed and that massive jar of pickles doesn’t end up flattening your punnet of raspberries, or whatever. The method I experienced today might be quicker in terms of time spent at the checkout, but it means all your shopping gets mixed up again in the trolley. The consequences are that you either have to then pick through the items to pack them properly, or you just throw everything in carrier bags as they come back out of the trolley, risking berry damage. This means that either more of your time is taken up during the packing stage, or risk of squashing is heightened. Inconvenience either way!
So, my assessment of this supermarket’s alternative till policy is that yes, it looks sleek at first glance, but any apparent efficiency is mired by the process actually causing the ‘real’ end-to-end time to be extended, as well as introducing a new unnecessary stage that has the knock-on effect of causing further inconvenience to the customer.
If I was a betting man, I reckon that if you were to time how long it takes from the moment a customer’s shopping hits the conveyor belt to the moment the last item is safely bagged up, the traditional method of packing shopping bags at the checkout would be faster. The alternative method experienced today gives the illusion of speed because the observer is only focussed on one part of the process.
What does this prove? Well apart from the fact that I obviously think too deeply, the lesson here is don’t be fooled by flashy new methods or operating models. Look at the entire process, not just the bit that seems the most obvious or impressive, and always assess benefit from the perspective of the customer or service user.