So I am standing in a line out at the front of a Big 5 Sporting Goods Store. I need to buy some fishing licences for some people that I am taking fishing. So I there I am, standing on my little blue X like a good COVID patron. I am behind 4 other groups of customers also waiting, impatiently I might add, to get into the store. As it common these days, this retail establishment is being ran by teenagers, all of them under the age of 18. For the most part this works out, as retail outfits have figured out how to create procedures for almost everything. Well, except when I come that is. It seems that whenever I arrive at a store like this, a wrench gets thrown into the mix, and all the teenagers are looking befuddled as they look through a manual while calling the store manager and leaving voice mails. I digress.
So I am in this line, bravely lowering my cloth face mask slightly so that my glasses do not fog up when I realize that the line has not been moving for quite sometime. Big 5, Murrieta CA is experiencing a significant growth in their backlog. I smiled at this because I was quite sure that I was probably the only one in line that was comparing my current predicament to an agile software development workflow. Don’t worry, this gets better. I had plenty of time to contemplate this analogy further, as the line was just not moving at all. All of us customers, or what I began to think of us as feature improvements were stuck waiting for the teenagers to finish their process and let one of us in.
Let me take a step back and explain the problem. You see, someone @ Big 5 HQ decided to communicate their COVID plan to all their franchises. This was done rather quickly. Normally they will pilot this at one of the stores and see how the teenager workers react and deal with the new policy change. However, with COVID they did not have a chance to go through that test cycle. So they released this new COVID policy to production nationwide. Their policy is that only 15 people can enter the store at any given time. 15 people includes any Big 5 employees. So there are 5 teenagers working in the store at any given time. You have the person that manages the cash register, this is always the person in charge for the shift. Makes sense, put the smartest teenager over the money, right? Then you have the overflow worker, who is always helping at the cash register. Then you have the shoe person, an important role at Big 5. That is one of their largest revenue sources. Then you have overflow person that usually is helping clients. The 5th person is the x factor. They are rotating in and out where needed and usually taking a break. You have to give teenagers 15 minute breaks every hour or the whole machine melts down. So this requires an overflow person to rotate in and out and allow for this periodic break period. So the 5th person is never actually working.
The adult customers in the backlog (the line outside of the store waiting to get in) could easily see that the teenagers were not managing their workflow very well. There was no elegant system and determining just exactly how many customers were in the store at any given moment. They had a loose system being tracked by the cashier. She was very good at telling people, “Sorry, there is a line at the front door, you have to wait until we let you in.” However, she was not very good at letting people in when the time came. Most of the customers figured out a self service portal type process. We would wait until someone left and then we would just take their place. This seem to work, up until the point that a family of 4 tried to replace one person. The impromptu queuing method broke down real quick, when you could see the cogs in the wheel jam up as people tried to figure out what impact on the process replacing 4 with 1 would have on the operation.
This catapulted my mind back to the days when I was a kid working at the airport, loading and unloading packages on UPS planes. One day we were loading and unloading a few planes and I could not help but notice we were actually unloading empty crates. This seemed really strange to me. We were spending a lot of effort unloading a partial or completely empty container from a plane that just flew in from some distant hub. I was in school at the time, and I was learning about protocols like ATM. You see ATM was a protocol that effectively condensed traffic from multiple sources into fixed length “cells” that would then transport data rapidly and effectively across a transmission media. It seemed to make sense that you would fill the cell before you sent it on its merry way. I asked one of the supervisors about this. Why are we loading and unloading empty shipping containers? His first response was, dude, you do not belong here if you are asking questions like that! His second response was, look around. Look at all the people around you. They are working constantly and effectively at a consistent rate of speed. They cannot handle a deviation in the workflow. We cannot do anything complicated like holding things in queue. Simple functions only, now get back to work loading that empty container. BTW, ATM as a protocol failed for this very reason. As it turns out speed is more important than avoiding congestion.
However, the overburdened teenage staff at Big 5 have not learned that lesson and there I stand waiting in the backlog. Now if I had my wife with me, things would be different. She has this magical way of really adding pressure to the queue process of teenagers. You see if you make a big enough issue, the teenager will melt down and let you by pass their rules so as to avoid conflict. Works every time. However, I am a conflict avoidance type of person and take a more passive aggressive approach to resolution. I resort to sarcastic comments and contemplation of how this situation applies to my personal life. As the people in front of me were arguing with the girl at the front door that there was only 6 people in the store right now and that she could afford to let in a few more, I started thinking about workflow.
I was first introduced to the concept of managing a backlog of work in their early 90s. I was taught a “bucket” process. There was the “To-do” bucket, the “in progress” bucket and the “done” bucket. Effectively three buckets. I learned that as the first bucket filled, you would start to see the second bucket fill. It became imperative to have a methodology of moving work from one bucket to the next. What I did not know at the time, was that this was a methodology of visualization called Kanban. This is the concept of flow. Seems like an incredibly simple concept, but if you have ever been a teenager worker at Big 5 or UPS, you will understand that sometimes the most simple solutions to complex problems can be very elusive.
The concept of flow as a visualization technique was invented in the early 40s by the industrial engineer at Toyota, Taiichi Ohno. His concept was very simple, yet instantly revolutionary. He wants to control and manage work through the entire value chain with a simple visualization model. One that stakeholders could visualize and use to make rapid decisions. What seems like child’s play today, Mr. Ohno created this Kanban visualization board which simply mimicked the Toyota supply chain but in a simple staged model of each production system. By the way, Kanban simply means something like billboard, signboard or posting board in Japanese. Little did the Toyota teams that adopted Mr. Ohno’s method would realize but this would prepare Toyota to adopt revolutions in robotic automation in their value chain. In a few years, Toyota would dominate the competition in production capability simply because they could visualize, manage and make quick decisions regarding workflow. When you organize your work, in a visual way in which you put the workflow into easy to understand buckets – then suddenly the challenges you are experiencing become easier to solve.
Getting back to the Big 5 teenagers. If they had a Kanban board at the front of the store they might divide it into three sections. Section 1 – Waiting – Customers waiting at the front of the store to get in. Section 2 – Shopping – Customers that are in the store currently shopping and Section 3 – Buying – Customers that are at the cash register making their purchase and preparing to leave the store. They could then start to see their challenges in plain view and make just in time decisions about how to handle their workload congestion problems. You see they had 15 people in the waiting bucket, 6 people in the shopping bucket and 1 person at the buying bucket. If you had that visualization in front of you, then you could make better decisions. For example, instead of having two cashiers working on checking out 1 person you would move one of those people to the waiting area to start managing moving people from the waiting bucket to the buying bucket. You would potentially move more of your people to helping to get the shopping customers to they buying bucket. For example, I noticed 4 of the 6 customers were waiting by the shoe department trying to get help. Even better, you might come up with a way to automate this whole mess. For example, you might go to the 99 cent store next door and buy some key chain like gimic. You would buy 15 of them. Then when a customer entered the shopping bucket, you would hand them the key chain item. When they left the buying bucket you would have them hand that to the next person in line at the waiting bucket. This way you have an automatic queuing system and exactly 15 place holders. Ok. Ok. I already here the Obsessive Compulsive mothers yelling at me. You need to sanitize the key chain thing before you hand it to the next customer! Got it.
By the time that it was my turn to go into the store, I had solved all of their problems. I was ready to go to the Staples down the street and buy them a small white board and hold a staff meeting and demonstrate how Kanban could revolutionize their workflow. That is until I stared into the vacant eyes of a 16 year old child and asked for a 1 day fishing license with salt water tag. I realized at that moment, that I would be lucky to get home at all that day and focused on the problem at hand. However, this experience did lead me to the point of this blog. I have decided to Kanban my life.
Yup. I am moving my desk 5 feet away from the wall in front of me at my office. I am going to setup several boards in front of me and then I am going to create the buckets that represent the major stages of my personal workflow. Then I am going to start taking work as it comes in and stick it in backlog. Then every morning I will meet with myself and decide what needs to move into the “working on” bucket and what needs to move out. This way I can visualize just how busy that I am. Instead of me whining and complaining at how “busy” and “overwhelmed” I am, I can look at my personal Kanban board and now that I have exactly 10 items waiting in backlog, 8 items that I am working on and 4 items that I completed this week. Something like that! I am not going to fall into the trap of using software, that will just lead me down the dark road of perfectionism. Instead it is just going to be good old fashioned post it notes and boards. I will try this little experiment with Kanbaning my life and let you know how it goes!
Report back! I want to know if it works for you!!