Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What do lean operations and New York bodegas have in common?

New York sometimes gets a bad rap for a mythical, brusque, who-cares kind of service, but speaking personally, I've almost never experienced it. What I've had instead usually combines professionalism (on-time, accurate, everyone says "sir" a lot) with individual customization. Take this instance.

Recently I stopped by the closest bodega to my house for a couple cans of beer as I do from time to time. They have a big selection and I always hope they'll have Heineken in a can but they almost never do. So I chatted with the guy who appears to be kind of like an owner — you know, he was the kind of person who acted like one whether he was or not —and asked if he'd take suggestions for beers. "Of course!" he said and agreed with me, "Heineken in a can is so much better!" He got the attention of the other guy in the shop and told him, "Let's get a couple cases tomorrow." This is 10pm at night. Next day, they were there.

That's what a corner store used to feel like. Or so I imagine. Frankly, I've' never experienced many corner shops in Michigan. In one way it's weird that there's this level of personalization in the biggest city in America. On the other hand, there are a lot of factors about shopping in New York that, when thought through, make its personal service seem not so odd.

In New York, everyone shops in the immediate vicinity of where they live because it's a pain to travel long distances hauling stuff on foot. You don't have a car and you have to carry everything yourself so you shop in small batches. This is a key factor that, like small batches in lean operations elsewhere, leads to beneficial and unexpected results. Because you shop in small batches you'll often be in the same shop several times a week.

The shops are different than many other cities, too—smaller, often run by adults, not the teenagers and college students you see working in big box stores elswhere America. The staffs don't turn over very much. I'm not a guy who is super chummy with everyone when I shop but it's telling that I know the names of the person who runs the laundromat, the florist, the wine shop, the cafe, several restaurants, the bodega owner and probably a few others I'm forgetting. In Ann Arbor I knew maybe two of the names of the people who ran their shops—Bob Sparrow the butcher and Mike Monahan the fishmonger. (They were there when I shopped.) Ann Arbor is a town a fraction of the size of New York but, to me, felt far more anonymous

Anyway, this is not meant to be a plug for New York. I wanted to point out a couple things. One is that smaller shopping batch sizes, one of the principles of lean, lead in this case to greater personal contact. That personal contact ultimately, in my case (and I know I'm not alone), led to better and more customized service. That service was not administered by a survey or a some other process. It was a question, an answer, and and act—all done immediately, just in time, on demand. It's a powerful way to run a business. These are great lean skills, hard to replicate and some of the reasons that, in spite of CVS and Rite Aid and other national chains trying to make a dent in the commerce here, small owner-operated bodegas in New York thrive.

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