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The story of a deli, and the need for coordination

A few weeks ago I was out at the local festival — it was a warm, sunny day, and the entire town was out. Many second hand stalls were hawking their wares, and every so often along the corridor of pots and books and unwanted bric a brac, a catering van was feeding and quenching the crowds as the music in the centre stage clashed and blended with the make-shift alternative entertainment grounds’ percussions in festive brouhaha. A great event altogether.

I decided to take a break with my friend however at a nearby delicatessen that we both enjoy, mostly. I say mostly, as this venue sometimes irks me — not for lack of good produce (which is excellent) or for lack of pleasant service (they are delightful), but for lack of efficiency.

Situation

The last time we were there, it was nearing the end of the day, the shop was busy and customers were queuing out the door – ordering to take away, ordering to sit in, and buying various items of produce. I was sitting with my friend at one of the tables looking at the menu, and waiting for someone to come clear the table of the items the previous patrons had left.

During this time, I overheard a couple of complaints about mixed up orders, and another couple about still waiting for food or the bill. In the mean time, we had been up to order, and come back, and were still waiting for our table to be cleared and wiped. In the end we cleared our table ourselves to the sideboard, and when our food arrived (after a significant, but not yet unacceptable wait), the table had still not been wiped. We asked for a towel to do it ourselves when we realised it sill wasn’t going to happen.

Clearly the onslaught of customers had caught the shop team off guard. There is always a risk of increased influx, that is a reality for any trade that is doing good business. This being a fact then, the handling needs to be thought out properly: a process needs to be in place at all times so that in times of stress, the business can operate at its fullest capacity.

Musing on this requirement, I came to a conclusion: one solution for a highly busy yet small environment is to appoint a coordinator, or a team leader.

Team Lead

Firstly, the absence of anyone keeping tabs on situations in the shop and coordinating everyone was apparent. Half the staff were taking orders and busying between counter and table, and half the staff were making sandwiches. Everyone was bogged down in their specific task such that nobody was keeping an overview of what was happening overall. Nobody was keeping an eye on the table still waiting for food to check the status with the sandwich makers, nor anyone with an eye out for the patrons still waiting for their money to be taken.

They needed someone coordinating them. It needn’t have been the most senior, nor did the title need to be permamnent. But when opening for business, a coordinator needed to be appointed for the duration of the day or shift, and it clearly hadn’t been done.

Communication

The lack of coordination meant that nobody knew what each other person was doing, thus how much time it would take to process any new order, or direct attention to the right places at appropriate times. Nobody could say how long service would be other than “we’ll bring it as soon as it’s ready/as soon as possible.”

When there was a problem, the individual to whom it was reported would set about to try and solve it themselves. This might sound like a good idea initially, as a staff member actively attending to customers’ needs, but what about the other tasks and orders she was meant to be processing? How was she keeping track of these? And would she easily know how to get all the information needed about the customer she was trying to resolve a problem for?

Communication between individuals of the team should be systematic. For any one question, there should be one best person to answer it, as and where applicable, and decide on the best person to act. The staff can have the best will in the world, but with no framework, they are easily snowed under and tugged a myriad different directions.

Reporting and Feedback Loop

As these complaints were being dealt with by individuals on the spot, there was no scope to step back and take in all the things that had gone astray, and how they were resolved, to build a better picture of how to run more smoothly in the future. There was no review, and without any coordinator, no reporting.

The waitresses were similarly probably not going to list to the rest of the team all the mistakes they’d made in the day, nor spontaneously draft a report to the deli manager — nor should they be expected to. The lack of of process is the manager’s concern. It should come to no surprise that whilst employees will honestly report their mistakes as part of a standard daily review process, they will likely not think to mention what they are not required to.

Team Lead as an Equal in the Team

Finally, it is essential to keep in mind that this reporting should be in the aim of improving the service overall, not singling out individuals. As such, the day’s team lead needs to be on equal foot as the rest of the operating team, not above, or aside, but an integral part. They too will have had their share of mistakes, and once they’ve carried out the task of listing the issues of the day, they can draft a plan of action and tasks to improve operation.

Of course, all staff reporting at the end of the day is not optimal. The importance of the team lead coordinating throughout the day and keeping an eye on all issues here is reinforced. Her colleagues will have been keeping the lead up to date with the issues such that she can, at the end of the day, sum everything up without gathering the team to “confess” in turn in front of one another – which would be felt as demeaning and prove counter-productive.

Process is vital in running an operation of any significance. My most recent visit, last week-end, showed that nothing had changed in the months since my previous patronage. I enjoy the deli’s produce, and the staff are always delightful to deal with. I just hope they’ll have a process one day.

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