Specialty café chains have grown ubiquitous only in the last twenty years, rapidly spreading to become one of the most prominent features of urban space. Starbucks, the paradigmatic example of a specialty café chain, has arguably ousted even McDonald’s to become the main symbol of globalized brands and cultural monopoly. This new breed of café shops is largely organized in franchises, a system which requires multiple controls that guarantee a uniformity of products, atmosphere and service in order to create a consistent brand experience for the clientele in any location.
Starbucks has undoubtedly pioneered a new and distinct Taylorist layout of service production. By analyzing how the coffee counter is used by personnel and customers alike, I seek to unpack Starbucks’s innovations in employee management, in light of its oft-cited image as a tolerant and humane service industry employer.
What is Scientific Management?
Scientific management is a theory of management that emphasizes scientifically determined jobs and management practices as the way to improve efficiency and labour productivity. One of the most famous proponents of scientific management is Frederick Winslow Taylor, who is given the primary credit for developing the core ideas on which scientific management is founded.
The objective of scientific management, often referred to pejoratively as Taylorism, is to discover the “one best way” to basic managerial functions such as selection, promotion, compensation, training, and production. Taylor wanted to deskill workers and required them to be specialised in one task which they would repeat constantly. Therefore logic would tell you that constant repetition results in enhanced productivity and ultimately superior quality.
In 1911, Taylor revealed his findings and guiding principles in the book “Principles of Scientific Management”. These principles are:
Development of a science for each element of work to replace the old “rule-of-thumb” methods.
Selection of the best worker for a particular task followed by a programme of training to replace the practice of allowing the worker to select his own task and train himself as best as he can.
Development of a spirit of heartily cooperation between management and workers
Division of work between the management and the workers, each department taking over the work for which it is better fitted.
In this essay, I explore Starbucks’s unique adaptation of the four scientific management principles to its own products and services in the 21st Century.
Starbucks and Scientific Management
Starbuck’s goal of creating uniform experiences in any location requires a centralized automation of processes that function regardless of who performs each step within them. Starbucks is organized around machines, and workers are divided between hyper-specific tasks around the equipment.
Do it again! Repetition makes perfect
A different employee is exclusively responsible for each of the areas of service: taking orders and passing these to the barista, serving food directly to the clientele, cashiering, blending (mixing and serving cold drinks), plus the barista who prepares coffee-based drinks on the espresso machine and serves them to the customer, who has already ordered, received any food and paid. Each of the products is processed and served by a separate employee so that each worker repeats the same preparation process on the same machine, sometimes for the duration of a whole shift, while alternating between the machine and side tasks such as cleaning and maintaining the storefront or restocking supplies. This hearkens back to the exigencies of Taylorized production, where constant repetition was believed to result in better productivity and ultimately higher quality.
The barista position, considered to be the most skilled and stressful in the café operation, consists of only a few simple skills in combination: heating and frothing milk; grinding and “tamping” coffee grounds; making espresso shots according to company guidelines for water pressure and volume, timing and temperature; and adding flavoured syrups to drinks along recipe guidelines outlined and focus-grouped by Starbucks. However, even the little remaining barista skills are in the process of being phased out, as baristas at Starbucks began to complain of wrist pains caused by the repeated action of tightening espresso filters. Repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis were creating a drain on the company and taxing its scheduling system, so they introduced new machines that automatically tamp and pour espresso shots at the press of a button. Thus, another layer of skill and knowledge is delegated to machinery, which does not only reduce the injury rates of employees but also ensures product uniformity.
Machine-oriented labour flow provides a triple-pronged threat to Starbucks’s dependence upon its employees: it makes workers easier to train, so that disobedient employees can be quickly replaced; it makes management less dependent on the skills of individual employees, as none of the employees are particularly skilled; and it structures the flow of work around the machines, introducing greater procedural flexibility, which ultimately sets the pace of the work itself.
This system leaves individual employees vulnerable to being easily replaced by another worker or by a machine. It has been argued that the ultimate purpose of Taylorism was to make employees interchangeable by making them accessories to the machines that regulate productive processes.
“What speed shall I use?”
The performance of the barista’s productive tasks is subjected to rigorously administered standards. Management teams travel around the US to different Starbucks shops, equipped with a Mr. Potato Head toy and a stopwatch. (!!) They teach the virtue of efficiency by first asking managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head toy, and then challenging them to improve their performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work. The Taylorists then apply the same test to the fetching of coffee or to bean grinding; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to portray any confused movements behind the counter or divagations across the shop floor; and they recommend new, more efficient coordination of action. For instance, any barista is expected to produce a “European” drink- espressos, lattes, cappuccinos or any of the numerous flavoured variations thereof-in less than 90 seconds, and a Primo Barista must be able to make at least five of these in less than three minutes.
The layout of a Starbucks counter dictates how it is to be used. The spatial distribution of machines behind the counter provides the worker who operates each machine a specific productive function, so that a customer must start at one end of the line and progress down its length being served by each machine-operator in turn, a characteristic Fordist procedure. However, once the customer’s order has been placed, it is called out by the counter worker to the barista. This call-out system is standard in specialty coffee bars with espresso machines, and it bifurcates the labour flows of baristas who prepare the drinks and counter workers who process orders at the cash register. Starbucks, like most other business, is primarily interested in maximizing throughput of orders. More orders means greater revenue. They thus use asynchronous processing.
This asynchronous system works well as one’s productive speed does not depend on the others. A barista can be backed up when there are more orders being called out by the counter worker than the barista has time to make. As each individual order is called out, the barista places a cup on top of the espresso machine and marks it to indicate the type of beverage it will be, then makes each drink in its turn while continuing to add more cups to the queue as more orders are received. When the barista receives too many orders to make separately, the milk is heated in larger quantities and the drinks are made in batches to reduce production time. The drinks are then served in order of completion rather than the order in which they were called out. This decoupling signals the departure of Starbucks from the strictly Fordist, linear structures which manifest in fast food chains, to the “one best method” for performing a particular task of Taylorism.
Starbucks trains about six thousand baristi per year. The use of the title is particularly controversial as the barista tasks performed at the highly regulated Starbucks café are de-skilled and repetitive work and can only be done in accord to strict company guidelines. In Markman Ellis’s book “The Coffee House” it is stated that a Starbucks espresso shot must be poured between 18 and 23 seconds and the milk must be heated between 60 and 80 degrees Celsius and with the introduction of new automated espresso machines that tamp and pour espresso shots on their own, the barista’s remaining skills will be phased out. Such strict rules and the complete deskilling of workers are characteristic of a Taylorist environment.
Starbuck’s automation has left more room for the “great theatre” that inspired the import of barista culture to North America, where dozens of green-aproned young employees create original drinks on mysterious machines amidst a buzz of blues and clouds of steam. The adapted Taylorist workflow has freed staff for other tasks, particularly from dramatic displays of their work and the social interaction that separates service labour from strictly industrial pursuits. This interaction is minimized to short spurts, so that workers do not actually engage with their customers for long.
Management knows best
The otherwise de-skilled Starbucks’s workers receive extensive training in the origins, preparation and history of the coffee products served in their cafés, in order to help in the training of clientele in coffee appreciation. Newly-hired Starbucks employees begin work with twenty-four hours of training in customer service, coffee and product knowledge from the company, and familiarization with the franchise’s products and policies. Thus, at Starbucks under scientific management, one-half of the problem is up to the management which provides the training for the “one best way”, while under the management of “initiative and incentive” the whole problem is up to the workman.
Starbucks’s employees’ closest ancestor is unquestionably the Italian barista, a term that has been imported alongside the company’s exoticised European culture. In Italy, this title is given after years of training and official certification, and their work is still considered an art that for most is a career, rather than a transitional job. The artistry is illustrated by the practice of holding barista competitions where contestants are tested on quality, speed, originality of insignias created on the foam of an espresso and the taste of “signature drinks,” made from recipes innovated by the baristas themselves. At Starbucks, however, the Taylorization of tasks allows no room for innovation, while the automated procedures limit employees’ ability to work creatively, they thus have neither the time nor the skills for invention. In this “Management knows best” environment everything needs to performed according to the managers’ rules.
In Italy, career baristas, in crisp white shirts and tuxedos, work for many years before earning the designation, and they’re paid â‚¬30,000 to â‚¬45,000 for their skills. The majority of their American equivalents start with little training at a “McJob wage”. Starbucks provides its employees with extra training and pays a little better, but also demands a bit more.
Pleasing Employees and Pouring Profits
It is a well known fact of industrial psychology that employees who receive greater training are more likely to identify with the organization, considerably reducing employee turnover levels and increasing goodwill. Briefly, if the employees feel that the company has invested time and knowledge into them they are more likely to consistently display a happy conduct and pleasant attitude and are less likely to leave. Starbucks can then market its employees as genuine examples of happy, affective workers in order to target a certain type of customer. The company simultaneously uses its human resource policies as advertising fodder and breeds new kind of workers who are attached to and identify with the company with whom they are productive “partners.”
The good relations between company and employees are frequent fodder for Starbucks, which extensively advertises its better- than-average compensation packages, health coverage and stock options, in a marketing move reminiscent of Taylor’s wage incentives almost a hundred years ago. According to Fortune magazine Starbucks was ranked the 24th best company to work for in 2009 in the US.
Starbucks publishes leaflets recounting Howard Schultz’s vision that “there is no more precious commodity than the relationship of trust and confidence a company has with its employees. If people believe management is not fairly sharing the rewards, they will feel alienated.”
At the same time, however, Starbucks has crushed unionization drives at various locations throughout Canada and the US, still pay minimum wage or a bit more, and give their employees oddly staggered shifts and little to no job security, all within a productive system that has supposedly been managed specifically so that the company is freed from any dependence upon its employees.
There is an obvious irony in the need to completely automate the productive workplace to make workers disposable, while providing pay incentives and novel training programs to entice workers to remain with the company, and even advertising the workers’ good will by citing these pay incentives. Although the regulation of tasks makes individual workers less valuable, it is still more economically favourable to keep the existing, already trained ones. Thus, for maximum productivity and profit, the best system is that which enables the company, whenever possible, to keep trained and functional personnel while maintaining flexible technologies and workplace structures so that employees who do leave can be easily replaced.
Starbucks supports its implementation of Scientific Management by claiming that the objective is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that is clearly management double-speak; the purpose is to sell more coffee and other Starbucks products, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but I believe that the Starbucks Taylorists plan to turn their employees into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” Undoubtedly, the most efficient Starbucks would be one that is completely free of slackers, an Automat with drinks served up by a mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.
My Personal Experience at Starbucks
While passing through Tottenham Court Road the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Scientific Management. There wasn’t much of a queue – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? – so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, she said, a doppio. Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. She turned and communicated something inaudible to the young man working the espresso machine. He looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, he said. I guess he was just starting. Another man came over and took him through it.
This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: what I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath. When I asked if he could take some of the foam out of the cup, he looked confused. The man who had been training him intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said he’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.
A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the counter and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest tube station. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the tube system, and she asked what any Londoner would ask: which line do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which line would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had began. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in London, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.