Efficient Toast

There is an interesting article in this month's Harvard Business Review called "Breaking the Trade-off Between Efficiency and Service." The basic idea is that service businesses, unlike manufacturers, have the unfortunate challenge that customers come barging in and interfere with their operations, introducing significant variability. Most businesses think they face a black and white choice:—accommodate the variability, or reduce it. The author, Frances Frei, says there are better ways to address this challenge.

While reading this article, I came face to face with this problem as I tried to order toast.

I was in a local restaurant, waiting for a colleague to show up for a breakfast meeting. I was reading how Frei suggests that there are easy, creative ways to offer either low-cost accommodation or uncompromised reductions in service.

I wanted to order toast while I was waiting, so I wouldn't have to drink coffee on an empty stomach. The waitress described the available choices, and both the multi-grain and rye bread sounded good. I asked her to split the order and give me one piece of each. She said, "We're not allowed to do that." I laughed reflexively. I see all sorts of stupid service decisions in my work, but this one seemed lower than inane. She started telling me about all sorts of rules they have against substitutions, complaining that her boss was needlessly rigid. "Customers always get mad at me, but they don't realize that it's the owner's rules." I jokingly asked her if each loaf had an even number of slices, and maybe he was worried about what to do with odd slices that might be left over.

I told her I'd take the rye, unless she was able to bend the rules. She came back and quickly dropped the mixed order on the table, as if she were delivering some contraband. When she came back to fill the coffee, I thanked her. I said, "You made it happen." She said, "I asked my boss and he laughed, but he let me do it."

Ok, I couldn't resist—I had to say something to the owner. After all, I'm a public speaker always in search of a good story, and I smelled the scent of an anecdote wafting towards me from the kitchen. So, on the way out I saw the owner and asked him about his rule. "I told her you could have it, didn't I?" he said indignantly. "I was just curious," I responded. "It's strange. Why would anyone want two different kinds?" "Did he just say I'm strange?" I thought. "I told her you could have it, didn't I? We just want to keep things simple." He walked away from me, pissed off.

Frances Frei is right that there is often a tension between service accommodation and service reduction. But she tells us that we must understand that trade-off, and then we will find ways to make good choices. But if we don't think things through and try to build efficiency around modest gains, such as policies against Heterogeneous Toast Order Fulfillment (HTOF), we'll end up driving away customers for stupid reasons.

And then, to replace those customers, we'll have to do something much more inefficient than serve combo toast: Advertising.

[We edited this post. The author of the article is named Frances Frei, with an e, and she is female, so we fixed her name and changed the pronoun referring to her. You can see her bio here. We apologize to her for getting her name wrong, and we thank Ryan Buell, one of her students, for setting us straight.—CM]