Your business process: simple or customized?


I always preach about simplicity to my clients.

Make your production process simple and straightforward to make your service delivery process more predictable and more profitable.

Customers always ask for something different and it’s tempting to give in every time. But agreeing to everything makes each project a snowflake — a unique puzzle to solve. This makes it hard to develop any consistent processes and it drives complexity in the service delivery process, adding extra cost and risk of making mistakes. Good examples of companies that have simple and consistent production processes are McDonald’s and Ford.

But keeping things simple means saying ‘no’ to customers – it means telling them that they don’t need a particular feature or special item. When you are the expert on your process you have the authority to move the customer – to tell them they don’t need that feature or that special process. The ultimate example of this is Henry Ford’s “any color you want as long as it’s black”.

One day, while standing in line at Starbucks, I started listening to the orders of the other customers. “Mocha soy carmel latte… iced, unsweetened red-eye… three bag, black tea with a foam topper… ” Every drink is different.  Starbucks doesn’t say “no” to anyone. Every drink is personalized to the needs and tastes of that customer. How do they do that without creating chaos behind the espresso machine?

I started to watch the process of making the coffees. Such a carefully designed dance — the cashier calling out the order to the barista, marking it down on the cup, then each drink has a set of motions all its own. The process isn’t a one off (even if the drinks are). It’s about massive customization all created through a flexible set of standardized processes. Starbucks has built the variability that creates customization into their process. There isn’t a standard process from which a special order is an exception. There’s a process from which every special order is created. The process is broken down into steps, each step has options. So the results can be consistently created from a series of standard sub-processes. There is one process that creates around 87,000 different results, they can even accommodate orders that aren’t on the menu.

Starbucks has put a lot of effort into developing the process that makes that customization possible, right down to standardizing the language that the customers use to order in, and building it right into the cup.

Is your business more like McDonalds, where there’s a standard process that produces predictable results for the vast majority of the orders, and exceptions are expensive and painful events to be avoided? Or is your business more like Starbucks, where no two orders are the same? Where you have mass customization and you need to develop specific sub-processes to handle individual special orders?


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