4.5 Minute Wait for Coffee

4.5 Minute Wait for Coffee

When my oldest son was just starting to talk, he would create contractions of words that were simpler than the original phrase. The “remote control” became “troller”. The word “helicopter” became “ha-coper” and in our family, those contractions have actually become the names of those items permanently. No one else knows what we are talking about but I will ask “has anyone seen the troller?” or point out to my younger son who is now just learning to talk “look, there is a ha-coper”. As a species, we humans are driven to efficiency. My sons have figured out how to accomplish that in the language that describes our world. The problem is that the point of language is communication and while efficiency is admirable, if other people don’t understand what I am talking about, then it doesn’t accomplish the end game and isn’t useful.
In retail design there is a strategy called functional inefficiency that business leaders would do well to pay attention to. This is the strategy of putting the milk in the back of the grocery store, or the clearance rack in the back of the clothing store, or the cosmetics counters between the entry of the department store and everything else you actually want to get to. This is not the most convenient thing for the customer but it is the strategy that results in higher sales which is at the end of the day, the goal of that retail business.
I am often brought in to solve workplace issues that have at least some component that deals with complaints from employees about inefficiencies. The role of a leader is to bring out the best in others and so one would think that addressing these employee concerns would be important. However before you work on the efficiency of the system, it is important to think about the end game. Is this inefficiency contributing to the organizational success in some way? Or just a bad system that needs to change?
There is a story about workplace strategy and efficiency at Google that I think makes my point. They had a coffee bar with a barista making fresh espresso drinks but the wait was too long. Employees complained and suggested that they should hire a second barista during peak periods. Google management studied the situation and realized that waiting encouraged conversation among people who might not otherwise engage with each other. They knew from the research on diversity and problem solving (Scott Page University of Michigan and others) that engaged diversity with empowered minority dissenting opinion is more likely when people know each other, and that diversity is THE most powerful factor in both problem solving and innovation. One of the primary business drivers at Google is innovation and so having people wait for coffee and talk to people they didn’t know was actually good for the business. They figured out that an average 4.5 minute wait was just about right – shorter than that, and people wouldn’t talk to each other – much longer than that and they might skip the trip to the coffee bar. Having really looked at what benefits were provided by this inefficiency, they went back to their employees and said “no”. They explained the logic behind it, and knowing why their request was being ignored, employees could now embrace their diversity-and-innovation-enhancing wait for coffee.
I have always thought that a grocery store could have some success with a marketing campaign that reframed the milk-at-the-back-of-the-store annoyance. If they were to pitch to me that they were being thoughtful and providing me with the opportunity to remember things that I needed anyway and therefore it was to my benefit, I think I would be much happier with the walk to the back. Business leaders cannot just ignore requests for efficiency. They need to help their employees understand that the long walk to the copy room takes them past people they should be talking to, or the lack of chairs around the quick meeting table is to keep the meetings short, or that the transition out of private offices enhances collaboration. Leaders cannot ignore the needs of their people but they have a responsibility to make them aware of the needs of the overall system and help them balance their own efficiencies with the functional inefficiencies that will help deliver the best end results.
I still really like the word “troller”. I think everyone should use it. It is perfect.