People–Can’t Profit With Them, Can’t Profit Without Them

So, in the same week that Tesla says that lack of people is a problem in their business (too many robots!), Starbucks comes to the conclusion that people are biased and are hurting its business, everyone gets training. So, which one is right?

Let’s start with Tesla. Their statement is not as much about how wonderful people are as it is that they haven’t quite (yet) gotten the engineering down for their new cars to be built completely by robots. So, it is not exactly an “Up with people” moment as a “Well, we guess we have to put up with them for a bit longer” one.

The Starbucks situation is a bit stickier. On one hand, they clearly felt as if they had to do something after a horrible incident involving African-American customers to maintain their brand image. But, I think they are setting themselves up for failure. Implicit bias training is well meaning, but correcting a lifetime of assumptions about people in a ½ day seminar is a pretty tall order. What will they do next time a racially tinged incident occurs? Do a full day of training? Validate a test that predicts levels of implicit bias?

Where I think the training will have the most impact is on their new hires. It sets a cultural norm of what is and is not OK. Yes, this will require management support and some way of recognizing employees for being decent human beings. But, in reading the comments on their social media pages after the announcement that may not matter as a lot of people were pretty bent out of shape of having to go one whole afternoon without their Starbucks. Ah, the downsides of selling a legal, but addicting, product.

Service sector organizations will always face the challenge of directing the activities of people in a way that is consistent with their values. Manufacturers are always challenged with introducing technology (which improves efficiency), but also understanding its limits (for now). We are not quite at a point where people can be engineered out of business. So, we still need to lead them in productive ways.

Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

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