Thank heavens for McDonald’s. They’ve given me an opening I needed to get something off my chest. Not about McDonald’s, but about productivity and about this:
(Note: the above photo was not taken at a Kopitiam foodcourt)
Improving productivity was the angle in the McDonald’s story. The fast food chain in Singapore has introduced a machine that dispenses frozen fries into deep-frying baskets automatically, eliminating the work that used to be done by hand. This and other improvements in work processes, reported the Straits Times on 26 March 2011, will mean “substantial” pay rises for its staff.
I’m not going to delve into how substantial is substantial, for that is not the point of this article.
The issue here is Singapore’s dismal productivity, for which this is one of two articles. This first one takes a snapshot of the issue at a micro level from an experience many of us share — eating out at a foodcourt. And here’s the example that gets my goat every time:
Ever since the chain of heartlander cafes called Ya Kun Kaya Toast proved how popular its eggs-toast-coffee/tea combo was, foodcourts have jumped into the act. The Kopitiam chain of foodcourts — or at least several branches that I have come across — added this product offer to their beverage counters a few years back. The problem with this combo is that it cannot be prepared in advance. The toast has to be made fresh and the eggs boiled on request. It is labour-intensive (the margarine and kaya jam have to be spread by hand) and time-consuming. Adding a toasting grill and a stock of eggs further clutters the already congested workspace.
The worst disruption however is to queue satisfaction. What do I mean by that?
Previously, the beverage counter sold only beverages. Canned drinks transactions could be done in under 15 seconds. Hot beverages like coffee and tea took a little longer, maybe 20 – 30 seconds, for two cups. Rapidity in transactions is important because in a typical foodcourt, there is only one drinks stall. A foodcourt’s hundreds of customers are distributed across a large number of (non-beverage) food stalls, so each stall gets a smallish number of customers, and they therefore have the luxury of time to prepare each dish fresh. A majority of the hundreds of customers however converge on the single drinks stall for their drinks, often forming queues in front of it. Hence, unlike the food stalls, the beverage counter has to be able to transact rapidly.
Adding the kaya toast combo to the product offer was a disaster. If the customer at the head of the queue orders a combo or two, the worker is diverted away for 2 – 3 minutes preparing the order. The queue stops moving. If the next guy also orders a combo, it’s another 2 – 3 minutes added to the waiting time of those behind.
There have been occasions when, joining an eight-person queue resulted in a queuing time of 8 – 10 minutes just to buy a canned drink — a transaction that needed only 7 seconds.
Sometimes, the cashier doesn’t prepare the order herself. She shouts it out to a co-worker to prepare the order. This may work in theory, but in practice, communication skills are so bad among middle-aged “aunties”, they make a lot of mistakes when transferring orders. (I won’t go into an analysis of why that happens though I have spent some time observing them and have made several unflattering conclusions about “auntie” work behaviour.) The nett result is still the same. Additional time is required to sort out confusion and mistakes; the queue does not move any faster after factoring in the extra labour force behind the counter.
I notice that some food courts have now discontinued selling this from their beverage counter. Instead, a separate stall is set up specialising in kaya toast. They must have realised how counter-productive it was. But Kopitiam does not seem to have done their time-motion studies.
Beyond the issue of queue dissatisfaction lies the problem of productivity. Whenever time is wasted, productivity falls, because at the end of the day the output is still the same, only that more time has been invested to achieve it. The clutter on the countertop, the women getting into each other’s way as they try to handle three or four orders concurrently, and the time spent correcting mistakes all lower productivity. Add to that the customers’ time wasted while standing helplessly in a queue and on a macro societal level, productivity falls again.
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Another mystery is why foodcourts still sell beverages by hand. Why haven’t they followed the example of the Subway chain of sandwich cafes where, upon payment, you’re just given an empty cup. The customer goes to the soft-drink dispenser and helps himself.
No doubt foodcourt operators might be concerned about dosage control. Wouldn’t customers abuse it and refill their cups? So what? Managers should look at the bigger picture. Think of the manpower savings. In any case, how many people really want to get fat on soda? Alternatively, foodcourts could install vending machines that dispense canned drinks. There are even machines today that dispense hot drinks. With cashcards ubiquitous in Singapore, customers don’t even need to make payment at a counter.
With all these obvious possibilities, I’m thoroughly stumped why we continue to sell drinks in such a labour-intensive manner.
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Then there’s an army of cleaners. We could achieve the same standard of hygiene with fewer cleaners at food courts and coffee shops if only customers did not mess up the tables. Partly, the cleaning demands are created by bad social behaviour — a quick glance at any fastfood restaurant will remind you how bad things are — but partly too, the foodcourt stalls and management are to blame.
For example, if they know that the dish has bones or other disposables, then they should provide an extra saucer to contain them. At least the woman in the picture at left took the trouble to make a tidy heap out of her inedibles; others do not bother.
Providing an extra saucer is not rocket science. There is surely something very wrong with our companies’ managements that such a practice is virtually unheard of.
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In Part 2, I will discuss this from a macro perspective, but I felt it was important to first discuss this from the ground up. In talking about productivity, the government has often spoken about training and automation (e.g. a machine that discharges frozen fries into hot oil). Certainly, these are important steps, but we too easily forget that there are plenty of simple things that would produce results and yet are not done.
More importantly, low productivity is also an outcome of our own social behaviour as I have illustrated above, and which I will mention again in Part 2. This is something the government is going to find very hard to tell us or to correct; we no longer like a government to lecture us on our behaviour. That only means it has to be one Singaporean telling another: Hey people, sometimes the way we do things, it’s damn stupid.