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The Power of Process

  • January 01 2001, 1:00am EST

During a trip to research neighborhoods and homes for our recent move, we stopped at a real estate office to check on local property. When we opened the doors of our car, we were met by a seductive and luxurious scent. It was the richest, most enveloping aroma of coffee I had ever experienced. I was immediately transfixed and set out to discover the source of this magical, mystical elixir. Just down the sidewalk, I discovered it. Doors thrown open to the warm breeze, the cornucopia of olfactory delight sat roasting, throne-like, in the front of the coffee shop.

I was briefly amazed. This coffee shop not only offered the usual range of specialty coffee, brewed coffee and espresso combinations, it also roasted its own beans. The roaster was the center of this wondrous world of coffee, with the radiating scents leading the wayward home to reap its bounty of unmatched freshness and flavor.

It is probably no surprise that we purchased a home just up the street from our newfound coffee oasis. Easily close enough to stroll to, the coffee shop has become a regular part of our routine. Strangely though, it is usually not the happiest part of our day. Each interaction in the purchasing process at this coffee shop is a struggle. Each experience causes the customers to weigh the undeniable virtues of the shop's product against the unavoidable pain of its processes.

In some ways, the uniqueness of this operation is its Achilles' heel. It is not part of a national or regional chain. It is an example of an increasingly rare commodity on the retail landscape of America ­ an independently owned and operated small business with its own identity, its own marketing, its own strategies and, unfortunately, its own flawed methods of conducting business.

The shop has eschewed the smoothly oiled processes of its behemoth competitors. You can visit any Starbucks or Caribou Coffee in the world and seamlessly order your product at one station, pay for your goods in the same spot and then slide over to a pickup station where you receive your piping hot cup of standardization. Mind-numbingly consistent it may be, but this proven methodology provides a steady, consistent customer interaction process that is not only reliable, but scalable as the number of customers and flow of orders increases.

Even though our local shop has two stations available, it has adopted the chaos theory of retail interaction. Each customer must approach the single station that is utilized and establish a connection with one of the young, enthusiastic and earnest employees as they become available after filling a previous order. Whichever crew member you happen to draw then handles your order on a craft-build basis. The crew member takes a customer's order, grinds the beans, loads the espresso maker, draws the espresso, steams the milk, adds the ingredients, gathers any food items for the order, toasts the bagel, brings it back to the singular station every other crew member is also using to move product and cash, rings up the order, takes the money and returns the change.

The upsides are that everyone involved gets to enjoy a unique experience with every visit to the shop, the crew is incredibly cross trained and the customers learn the virtues of patience. While this approach is great at 6:05 a.m. or 3:15 p.m. when there are two or three customers, it is a total disaster at 8:42 a.m. when there is a 30-foot line of customers waiting to order.

During busy times, we regularly witness 10- 20 percent of customers abandoning the line due to the excruciatingly slow pace of order fulfillment. We also regularly see new visitors ­ drawn in by the product offerings ­ leave as they witness the disturbingly random nature of the interactions between customer and staff. While this may be more as a result of the sad homogenization of the American experience than because of the deterring nature of an unsettling and irregular process, it is an observed, repeatable phenomenon, nonetheless.

The lesson in this is the power of process or the lack thereof. How many of you see your business intelligence processes reflected in our coffee shop? You may be the only source of unique product, but your customers abandon you because your products are custom-built, take forever to deliver and/or your processes are non-scalable. Your methods of interaction are irregular, and product delivery does not occur in a consistent manner.

Think beyond the mere delivery of information. How many of you actually have documented BI processes? Do you have a documented process for handling dirty data, requests for new data, requests for new summaries and requests for new users? Do you have a documented methodology at all? How about your infrastructure processes such as incremental backup, total backup and disaster recovery? When was the last time you reviewed your disaster recovery process in detail, much less actually tested the plan?

Many BI teams and systems today are blessed with incredibly desirable, unique and powerful products. However, like our local coffee shop, they are saddled with a crippling lack of scalable, repeatable processes that will forever prevent them from reaching their true potential. Try putting as much energy into process as you are putting into data ­ and reap the rewards.

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