Autoblography Part 34: The Systems Analyst

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Oct 26, 2011

Filed under: Personal 123 comments

Excepting Seven Springs, this is the largest entry in the entire series. Sorry about that. This isn’t really about me as much as it is about a problem that I observed. If you’re looking for an entry to skip, this is the one.

It’s 1993, and I’m working at Taco Bell. Working here is miserable, but very instructive as a low-level view of corporate dysfunction.

I’m 22 now. My life isn’t irrevocably ruined by this fast-food detour, but I can feel the clock ticking. The longer I’m stuck in this rut, the harder it will be to break out. I need to find some kind of technology job soon. This is hampered somewhat by the fact that I’m afraid to look for work. I like thinking that I’ll be able to get some kind of job doing what I love. The only thing that can kill that dream is to attempt to do so and fail. I’m not really aware of this dysfunction right now; it’s just a little neurosis that eats away at me from time to time and perpetuates foolish behavior.

My friend David is going to school at Nyack. Patrick has graduated high school and gone off to the Navy. I’ve made new friends at Taco Bell but we’re all friends of proximity, not common interests. I’m feeling a little isolated these days.

Heather is now in her second year of college. She’s double-majoring in elementary and special education, with an art minor. In those rare moments away from school, she’s working as a nanny. It’s keeping her busy. We’re still dating, but our relationship is an on-again, off-again thing. Taking the long view, this is probably for the best. I’m not a very nice person to be around these days, and our distance saves her from the brunt of my bitterness, self-absorption, and jackassery. The friends around me are not so lucky, and I end up treating a lot of people very poorly.


I’ve been made a shift manager. I’m allowed to be in charge of the store and I’m privy to the inner workings of the business in a way that wasn’t possible as a lowly mook at McDonald’s. I find I’m very interested in the problem of how the weekly work schedule is made.

Making a work schedule in a place like this is a fiendishly difficult task. Each employee has a schedule of availability that is unique to them. Alice can only work weeknights before nine. Bob can only work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and can’t work after dark because he still has a junior license which prohibits nighttime driving. Carl can’t work on Sundays, won’t work before three in the afternoon, and his mother doesn’t want him to work more than ten hours a week. Dave and Ellen can’t work at the same time, since they’re living together and one of them needs to be home with the baby. Furthermore, some employees are not suited to some tasks. Fred is too dumb and rude to work the register. Gretchen can work the register but hasn’t yet been trained on preparing food. Additionally, you must make sure to give all of the employees the right number of hours for the week. You can’t let the full-timers drop below forty hours or they won’t be able to pay their bills. You can’t make any of the minors work above a certain limit or it’s a federal offense. You have to give everyone at least a few hours or they’ll quit. Above all, you can’t give anyone more than forty hours or corporate will mete out harsh judgement on you for allowing people to earn overtime pay.

Using this list of restrictions, exceptions, and limitations, you have to fit these employees into a schedule that gives you exactly as many people as you’ll need at any given time of the day. This task ends up being an hours-long puzzle where there isn’t guaranteed to be a solution.

At McDonald’s this was done by hand. Here at Taco Bell, the schedule is first done by a computer, and then a manager has to come along and completely re-build it. The computer can’t generate a usable schedule because the rules of each individual employee are so complex that there’s no way to explain them to the computer. (There’s no way to specify things like, “these people can’t work at the same time”.) The person who wrote this software lived in some sort of dreamworld utopia where all employees are competent at all tasks, people won’t quit if they don’t get enough hours, nobody ever needs a ride, and teenagers are willing to work on Friday nights. It’s an enormous pain to build the schedule using the clunky interface of this computer system, which means that the schedule is a lot more work here than for the people at McDonald’s who do it by hand.

In addition to building a useless and broken schedule, the computer system also calculates our allowed hours. It looks at the business you do on an hour-to-hour basis and uses that information to allot time for next week’s schedule. So, if we did a lot of business on Saturday night, it will tell you to have a lot of people on hand next Saturday. The other thing it does is examine your business at the end of the day and tells you how many hours of labor you should have used today. Without fail, at the end of every single day, it tells us we used too many. This results in corporate wrath falling on the head of the store manager.

Obviously there are a lot of problems with making computer systems to predict the future and then punishing the manager when it guesses wrong. The system doesn’t look at anything other than how much the store makes an hour. If you did $100 worth of business, then it concludes the place was dead and you only needed a couple of people. $100 works out to a customer every five minutes or so, which is very slow. You don’t need a lot of people for $100 worth of business, assuming all customers are evenly spaced. But in the real world (which is where my store is located) customers sometimes come in blitzkrieg waves. When Wal-Mart closes, twenty customers show up at once. Two people can keep up with an order every five minutes, but twenty customers at once will instantly bury those same two employees.

We have a one lane drive-thru. Once you enter, you’ve got the building on one side and a steep embankment on the other. It’s physically impossible to leave drive-through prematurely. It turns out that if someone finds themselves thinking, “I am hungry, and in a hurry. I will use the drive-through”, they will be incredibly angry if they find themselves trapped for half an hour. If not for the fact that they’re already late for something, we’d probably have to deal with a lot more profanity and shouting.

None of this would be a problem if there was a human being rating the performance of the store, but it’s all done by computer and nobody has the authority to overrule the computer. This place has chewed through three store managers since I was hired. They’re calling this place a “problem store”.

Upper management types come here now and again to figure out what’s wrong. I often hear these guys talking about the “model store”. At first I thought this was a hypothetical thing, but now that I’m a shift manager I’ve discovered that this is a real place. Somewhere out there is a real, physical building where managers observe business patterns, employment trends, and products. They use that data to decide how to run all other stores, under the assumption that all stores should be pretty much the same. It quickly becomes very clear to me why everything is going wrong. At the McDonald’s where I worked (and, I assume, at the model store) business follows a fairly predictable sine wave. There’s a morning rush, a lull, then the huge lunch rush, then another lull, then dinner, then a slow, steady decline of business until closing. This pattern is very regular, to the point where you could know what time it is simply by observing the number of orders and the ratio of drive-through to dining room customers. (People are less likely to come inside once it gets dark.) This pattern does not hold for our Taco Bell.

After observing (and suffering under) the computer system, I can see what’s wrong with their computer model. It’s built atop two assumptions that are demonstrably false for our store:

1) The traffic of one week will resemble the traffic of the previous week.
2) For any given hour, orders are roughly evenly spaced, or arrive in brief clusters.

The system doesn’t allow for traffic spikes or unpredictable traffic patterns. When these reports show up in the hands of some distant district manager, they either cannot see or cannot understand what’s really going on. They just see that, according to the computer, we burned an extra 16 hours in one day. This means that we supposedly had one more person than was needed, the entire time the store was open. They get an image in their heads of a person lazing around the store from open to close, soaking up hours but not having any work to do. This manager passes down the directive for the local manager to fix this problem. When that manager fails to fix it, they are removed and the job is given to someone else. Higher ups keep showing up with notebooks full of reports and asking why we can’t be more like the other stores in this district.

The gap between how many people we need and how many people the computer says we should need is large. The store manager usually tries to split the difference and be only moderately short-handed and moderately over-budget. On a normal day this is tolerable, but when we’re hit with traffic spikes we end up with chaos, wrong orders, bad food, and shameful service times. I want to apologize to every customer as I hand them their food. Some of the order times exceed twenty minutes. That’s the gap between the order being placed and the order being “bumped”. (Completed and cleared from the queue.) The customers actually waited for much longer if we include the time they spent in line. This is horrible. They could have gone to a sit-down restaurant and have obtained their food faster.

This place should not be a problem store. We’ve got the high school, the intermediate school, the fairgrounds, the lake, the state park, a movie theater, and two different shopping plazas nearby. We’re the most convenient fast-food place for both Target and Wal-Mart. We’re sitting on the nexus of a couple of major roads. There are other fast food places in the area, but we’re positioned at the end of the strip so that shoppers must drive past us to get to the other restaurants. We’ve got customers, all we need to do is keep enough people on hand to sell them the food they want without pissing them off.

A lot of our traffic comes from people travelling to or from the lake, and those customers can be multitude or non-existent, depending on the weather. Making a truly accurate schedule ahead of time would require us to be able to predict the weather more than a week in advance, and with greater accuracy than meteorologists. We would need to know the schedule of every sporting event at the schools, every event at the fairgrounds, and the exit times of all of the popular movies. (Which would require knowing which movies would be popular ahead of time. Even if such a task were possible, it would be a part-time job in itself.

Even if we magically knew when the traffic spikes were coming, you can’t surgically schedule people to work like that. “Oh Bob. We need you to work on Friday night at six for an hour. Then at nine for an hour. Then come in again around two for the bar rush. Thanks.” If you need three people at nine in the evening and three people at two in the morning, then you need three people the whole time, no matter how slow it is at midnight. You can’t explain this simple truth to the computer, even if you swear at it. I’ve tried.

The upshot is that this is really an excellent location for a fast food joint, but the chaotic business patterns confuse the computer system and cause it to incorrectly appraise our performance.

It’s bad enough that this place is grinding up managers and failing to capitalize on all of the available business, but this bad service is also damaging the Taco Bell name. This is the first Taco Bell in the area. For many of our customers, this is their first (and possibly last) impression of the brand name. After one visit they will have learned that “Taco Bell” is synonymous with filthy stores, haggard employees, trash in the dining area, and twenty-minute service times. Taco Bell is worried about spending an extra five bucks an hour to staff the place, but we sometimes lose double that in refunds, food wasted to mistakes borne of chaos, and drive-off customers. Beyond that, we don’t even have a way to count the people who walk in the door, see the line, and walk back out. Even if you take the extremely short view on such things, this skeleton crew policy is a massive liability to the company name and the bottom line.

The frustrating thing is: I can see this problem. I see how the computer is supposed to work, and I can see where it’s actually going wrong. I’ve diagnosed the problems with the system by simply observing the daily traffic and reading the resulting reports.

I try telling a few of my bosses, but I’m generally dismissed as a whiner and a Luddite and a paranoid. They assume I’m blaming the computer because I’m an angry dumb kid and I want to shake my fist at “The Man”. It’s true that I’m not particularly diplomatic or dispassionate with my observations, which is a skill I’ll acquire later on. However, I’m not just looking for someone to shake my fist at. I’m upset because the engineer in me can see a malfunctioning and self-destructive system, but I have no means or authority to fix it.

I’m sure not even my bosses’ boss knows the name of the person at corporate headquarters who is in charge of the people who envisioned this system. They might as well be on another planet. There is nothing I can do to explain this, even if I was willing to go over someone’s head. The store is a nexus of loss and personal strife, and all of the problems can be traced back to a computer system that nobody has the authority to question.

I’ve felt this way before. I remember sitting in classrooms and looking at the inane and counter-productive things being done around me. I remember the helplessness and frustration I felt at observing an unassailable status quo. This isn’t just a problem with schools. It’s a problem with any large system. It’s a problem with people. Any time you have a system where there are several layers of separation between the decision-makers and the decision-implementers, you’re going to have these situations where the left hand is feeding the right hand into the woodchipper.

I don’t know if my career will ever get moving again, but if it does I hope I don’t end up working for another large corporation. Ideally, I’d like to work in a small company. I want to be part of a small team, where my input will be valued and people will be able to see the results of my work. I don’t want to ever find myself in a position like this where I’m in charge of polishing the brass on a sinking ship.


From The Archives:

123 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 34: The Systems Analyst

  1. Jarenth says:

    This is one of those entries that would be a lot harder to read if we didn’t already know you make it out of that hell-hole later on.

    Also, “…situations where the left hand is feeding the right hand into the woodchipper” is my favourite quote of the day.

    1. Deoxy says:

      Ditto. To both of those, actually, though I first wrote it for the second part.

    2. Regiment says:

      More than once I’ve found myself sadly hoping things get better before remembering that they did (will? are going to? willan haven-be?)

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        “I'm in charge of polishing the brass on a sinking ship” is my favourite, though

        1. Skye says:

          I dunno, that line just sounds like the perfect setup to a “That’s what she said” joke.

  2. Xazper says:

    Why would you want us to skip this? This is the most interesting thing I’ve read all week!
    I got a good chuckle when I got to the part about the higher ups talking about an actual “model store” and how every other one should be like it.
    I can only imagine the hell your inner engineer must have been in, the agony of a solvable problem right in front of your nose but not being able to fix it.

    1. Tizzy says:

      Word! This is a must read, for sure! It started out with the joys of hard scheduling (NP-complete) problems, but I’m glad that it turned into stories of even worse organizational problems.

  3. Xythe says:

    Ahhhh, memories. At my previous job they used a very similar scheduling system, and had to do rotas for 3 stores. Used to take the best part of 2 days to sort it all out, and cropped up all the problems you mentioned. I was one of those managers brought in as the 3rd in the past 18 months to try and deal with these “problem” stores (all in similar locations to what you describe, one on a university campus, one next to a cinema, bowling alley and bars, and one on a retail park). I got very quickly frustrated with the system, and eventually set up a simple set of formulas in Excel, did everything separately from the proper system, then (through a series of workarounds and bodges) leavered the data into the company software.

    I was hailed as some kind of management genius for turning the stores around, and was asked to become a management trainer to pass on my “unique skills”. I attempted numerous times to explain to the higher-ups that it was simply their stupid software screwing up the running of the stores, and my sucess was down only to disregarding the rules and doing things a different way, but while I got nods and interested looks, I don’t think any of them really wanted to make changes. Eventually I left disillusioned with the whole operation.

    I now work as a developer for a company that writes software for warehouses and retail till and back office systems. Despite having never written a line of code in my life before joining, the experiences I described from the job above landed me the post.

    1. Fists says:

      Ah, the noddy management types. You’re on the floor five days a week, you can see whats wrong and they just nod while thinking “thats not how I was told it works”

      1. Rick C says:

        “that’s now how I was told it works.”

        I quit a job as a scheduler at a factory in college primarily because of this. My scheduling models were based on what we could actually produce, not what the estimates were. My manager ignored reality in favor of his estimates, and when I started telling him we were going to run out of product and stall the lines, he ignored me because his projections said we’d be fine.

        I wasn’t going to be around when that happened.

  4. Fists says:

    Sounds just like my work place only, sadly, I don’t think an actual computer is used for any of the pig-headed binary-thinking. We have higher level managers, area or national or whatever drop by now and then, they tell us we’re doing everything wrong, scratch their heads for a while then leave because its too hard.

    One of the worst things was having trainees, even their first shift, counting as work-hours for the day so we’d have a trainee instead of an experienced member and then one of the experienced members we do have is occupied training, explaining, answering questions etc. leaving us effectively two people down in a store that operates with between 3-5 people. Also the state of the store means an ‘experienced’ member has been with us about two months since everyone gets sick of it.

    Oh and I’ve lost count of managers in the year I’ve been there, including place-holders its at least 6

  5. Zaxares says:

    Is it just me or… have we read this entry somewhere before? O.o I have this unshakeable feeling that this is a repeat post, similar to Shamus’ past post about Seven Springs.

    1. Shamus says:

      This is a much-expanded version of the post I made a couple of years ago:

      1. karrde says:

        Ya’know, I thought I’d seen that ‘Taco Bell’ name-badge before.

        My experience was with one of those frozen-yogurt-and-ice-cream joints, and we had a small workforce with predictable schedules.

        It was a franchise, with an owner who had the ability to lose money on the store for a year or two while they tried to keep things going. However, the store lost money for more than two years straight.

        Then the store sold to a new owner, and the new owner misunderstood the ‘ask for time off by writing your name on the calendar’ as a ‘ask for a time slot by writing your name on the calendar’.

        The new owner also misunderstood a bunch of other stuff. The fairly-stable staff evaporated, and the store died within a year.

        At least we didn’t have a management team responsible to someone who was unaware of our local situation…

      2. Skyy_High says:

        Whew, thanks for that, I could have sworn I was having an extreme case of deja vu.

        On further thought: how does it feel that you have readers who have stuck around long enough and have paid enough attention to your posts that they remember a story that’s over 2 years old?

  6. GTB says:

    Anyone who has ever worked in retail has had similar experiences. Often the mark of a good store is not “did we make enough sales that we paid the employees and ended up with a profit” but “did we make more sales this year than last year on the same day.” which is ridiculous because a constant upward trend is unsustainable, and there are hundreds of variables that determine traffic into the store. But that seems to be the norm. Not just profit, but steady yearly growth. The last retail store I was a manager in, they went through managers like crazy because somebody had to get the blame for a lack of growth. If the store came in under budget, that was fine, but if the store came in under budget but with fewer sales than last year, that was cause for upper management to show up. Insanity. I quit that job before I ever became anything other than lower management because that was were the blame started.

    1. Falcon says:

      My fiancée works for Lowes, and this is exactly what they do. This year has been terrible for that stupid reason. Last year she did really well, and almost singlehandedly demolished her departments budget. Thing is the sales were in groupings. So one week she had around $35k in sales, the next $5k.

      So corporate decides that their budget was going up this year. Oh that week you had $35k in sales, now your budget that week is $42k. So this year they are way under budget for the year because sales haven’t grown at all. They are actually down slightly from last year. Instead of saying ‘bad economy’ and keeping a realistic budget prediction, they’ve ground through several managers, losing the good ones. Employees are on edge, and getting warnings and write ups for stupid stuff. Arbitrary new rules are bring enacted and enforced (unevenly I might add). Needless to say she’s looking for a new job, despite the fact she is consistently one of, if not the, top sales people in her district.

      Basically large corporations tend to suck to work for.

      1. krellen says:

        This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I call corporations psychotic. They whole system becomes bogged down looking at numbers and completely forgets the people involved with those numbers.

        1. Matt K says:

          “‘Money before people’ that’s the company motto. Engraved on the lobby floor. It just looks more heroic in Latin.”

          Man I miss that show. A little OT but it seemed apropos

      2. Adalore says:

        Ah, I remember talking to my Co-workers about the, already stated, insanity of such systems.

        It’s going to crash, and the higher ups are not going to recognize why.

    2. Damian says:

      because a constant upward trend is unsustainable

      This is what I truly, honestly, do not understand about the business world. I’m a pretty hardline free-market capitalist, but what the hell is wrong with just making a tidy profit and calling it a day? I work for^H^H^H am a small cog for a pretty darn big corporation, and I simply don’t understand the constant strive for GROWTH GROWTH GROWTH. It’s not even greed – it’s some sort of strange fetish to be the biggest cock of the walk.

      1. Shamus says:

        Growth is the only way to keep stock prices moving up. There’s a lot of dysfunction resulting from people treating the market like:

        1) A roulette wheel
        2) A savings account

        There’s this huge segment of the population with their money tied up in the market who have no idea what the market is (or was originally) for or how it works. Leaders are given incentives to MAKE STOCK PRICES GO UP, as opposed to making sound long-term decisions and enjoying stability.

        Instead of a system of investing in ideas, it’s become this whole game of speculation where I value stocks based on what I think people will pay for them in the future, which is based on what other people think they will be worth, and so on.

        This is another reason why I strongly prefer to work for a privately-held company. Public companies are by nature dysfunctional. Large companies are by nature dysfunctional. Large AND public companies are a tempest of madness.

      2. Zak McKracken says:

        As far as I understand, the reason for growth is that most businesses are working on debts: Someone sees a business opportunity with more return than his bank’s interest rates for loans. => He loans the required money, does business. Now it has to give him more return on investment than the bank demands. If there’s an opportunity to grow because the business runs well, you have to do it or a competitor will. => whether you have any money left over or not, it must be done, so take another loan, and so on. This way, any investment you make _must_ return more than the bank is asking. In fact, if it returns just a little more, the majority of the earnings will go to the bank.
        For large stock-based companies it’s a little different: The stockholders want to be rich, which means they want the stock value to be large. They’re owning the company, so the company has to do what they want. And these people want of course to beat the interest their bank is asking for the loan they took to buy the stock, or they want to make more money than they could have got on a savings account and they definitely want to get more than just neutralize inflation and so on. In order to increase (not just hold constantly high) stock prices, you need to increase the expectations people have of the company. Which means growth.
        There are some exceptions to these rules. Like Warren Buffet, who isn’t just rich but supposedly puts most his money into companies whose business model he understands and who look more at the divident than the stock price. Mostly because most of the stock belongs to the family who founded that company.

        On the whole, though, the system of loaning money in exchange for interest payments is said to enforce the choice of either exponential growth or bad things. It also brings with it inflation. All the big big old cathedrals in Europe were built during times when loaning money was illegal in the respective country. Because during those times the value of money was stable, and standstill was a viable option. There was also a lot of mental standstill to go along with that, and other political conditions that made it cheap to just force lots of people to work for you … so that wasn’t a purely good thing either.

        A free market is a good thing, only it shouldn’t be regarded as some sort of magical power that will righten all wrongs by itself. It’s more like a complicated clockwork, and it does not work perfectly in all conditions (I mean, it consists of humans! I hear those are fallible sometimes), especially not in those its designers (also humans!) had never in mind when they made it up. So, next to everyday annoyances, it also has some unstable failure modes. To remove those from the system, or at least dampen them, some rules are required. Now, if only proper Economical system engineers could be making those rules … of only there was such a thing as a Economical system engineer …

  7. See, your problem was that you just didn’t have the proper working attitude…which is 2 part nihilism and 1 part cynicism. It allows you to look at a bad situation in a job where you have no power and take it for the opportunity to slack off that it is!

    1. Joe Cool says:

      Many of life’s simple frustrations can be solved by just taking a deep breath and repeating “it’s not my problem”.

      The rest of the frustrations, where it is your problem, can often be solved by taking a deep breath and repeating “it’s not the end of the world.”

      Unless it actually is the end of the world. But then you won’t have to worry for much longer.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        But theennn:
        many problems in a larger organisation are because other people overdo the “not my problem” exercise.
        My approach is to try and politely point out the problem and proposed solution to whomever might be appropriate, hope for the best and be prepared for not having any impact. At least I tried.
        I think right now a few things in my workplace are changing for the better, and it’s not from just taking what is given, nor from moaning about everything and just blaming the hierarchy layer two levels above you. It’s because a critical number of people told their concerns to other people who after some time started thinking, until some parts of what they saw and heard made sense …

  8. Dwip says:

    So now I really want to know what happened with the store and the program. Which, let us pause to consider. Shamus has made me care. About a Taco Bell. In 1993.


    Also, this:

    “Any time you have a system where there are several layers of separation between the decision-makers and the decision-implementers, you're going to have these situations where the left hand is feeding the right hand into the woodchipper.”

    describes so much of my working life it’s not funny. My first job, filled with people who had been working there 20-30 years and who really should have known better than they actually did about the many obvious issues was bad enough, and my friends and I who worked there, we got stories, oh yes we do.

    But one of my more recent jobs is wonderful for this. What’s really great here is that when they hired me, a really big deal was made about how valuable my input was, and how they really cared what I had to say. That probably should have been a warning sign, but I actually believed them and spoke my mind. Hopefully it will surprise nobody that all of the suggestions I made have have been acted on…the opposite way, and that (shockingly) things got worse. I suspect that Taco Bell’s scheduler program would actually be an improvement over the various and sundry pointless metrics that we’re held to, as well. I guess I could tell them what my various management teachers would have to say about metrics and micromanagement, but disaffected cynicism is ever so much more fun, really. Meanwhile, the woodchipperings continue, but morale has yet to improve.

    Every small team I’ve worked on has been fantastic, on the other hand.

  9. Lanthanide says:

    I wonder how many people will read this entry and go “ooooh, so that’s why the [fast food joint I worked at] never made any sense and I quit after 3 weeks”.

    I also wonder how many other people will read this entry and go “ooh, so that’s why the [fast food joint in the area I’m managing] seems to do so poorly when they should be doing much better”. Probably none, which is unfortunate.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      I hope a few people will also go “ohh, so sometimes if something looks stupid it’s not because everyone involved is a stupid idiot, it’s because there’s a bug in the organisational structure that keeps some of bad decisions from being corrected, and keeps the smart people from dealing with or even noticing the problems that are so obvious to me”.
      The best (though not natural) reaction to silly behaviour of an organisational body is not to condenm everyone involved but try to understand what the actual problem is. This is actually a very hard excercise, but it helps

  10. X2-Eliah says:

    Hm. Is it just me or is the ending of this one a set-up for the next entry, which will start with “I’m a bit older now, and just got a work at a massive company, with my own cubicle and 10 work-hours a day.”

    1. noahpocalypse says:

      No… No! It can’t be true!

      Shamus can’t work for M$! It just… Wouldn’t work. I don’t want to picture that. Argh. I think you made me cry a little bit…

      1. X2-Eliah says:

        Sigh. And there you had to ruin a perfectly decent remark by dropping the ‘M$’ name.. Seriously… Grow up?

        1. noahpocalypse says:

          I’m sorry. It was a moment of weakness. I beg forgiveness, yer Sireness. ‘Twas not my fault, I- I- I was only watching out fer me wife and children! Children, I beg ye, yer high ‘n mighty! For the children!

          1. Pickly says:

            Yes, you should know you are supposed to use the Euro sign as a symbol for money instead of the dollar sign. And possibly switching to whatever the Chinese symbol is if the Europian debt problems continue.

  11. zackrid says:

    Hey Shamus, I must say this was a great read and not just because I enjoy your writing in itself. I’m currently studying Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University and am considering moving on to being an enterprise architect or CTO later, so any perspective on faulty management is interesting to me.
    And I agree on the gap between decision-makers and -implementors, but I think it can be thought of as a bit broader than that. As a hobbyist artist/author, I care about people and my observation is that problems arise as soon as a group becomes large enough that people on one end no longer percieve those on the other end as proper people (i.e. you not being a person with a genuine dilemma but rather the third promotee in a row with poor management skills).
    So yes, I am totally with you on the part about working in smaller companies where work is taken note of and properly appreciated.

  12. Matthew says:

    Hehe, don’t apologize for an extra long post, I think I speak for most people when I say I thoroughly enjoy reading about your views on topics like these, on which you’re now rather knowledgeable. Also, optimization analysis is awesome, it’s a shame very few people seem to know how to do it right :p

  13. silentStatic says:

    Wow, that schedule must have been a combinatorial nightmare to do by hand.

    1. Kdansky says:

      It’s a well known NP-hard problem. There is no algorithm that can find the best solution in a sensible amount of time. Google Folding@Home if you want to see an interesting and equally difficult problem, and how to solve it.

      1. PAK says:

        Speaking of which, did everyone catch this story last month?

        Bit of a different crowdsourcing approach to that problem, but one using neurons instead of straight computing resources.

    2. Svick says:

      There is a reason why computer scientists call problems like this “hard”.

      Of course, like all other scientists, they like fancy words. So the proper term they use is “NP-hard”, which is short for the even fancier “non-deterministic polynomial-time hard”.

  14. Joshua says:

    I’m curious why after all of the regional managers visiting the store to investigate the problem, they couldn’t see that it was just an issue of customer timing. Did they only come by and observe for an hour, or what?

    1. X2-Eliah says:

      Theory > reality. Basic truth of management relations.

      1. Shamus says:


        Also, a manager comes to observe the store. He works in the store for ten hours, working with us and seeing how things go. He gets to the end of the day and says, “Yeah, we had about the right number of people. Looks like things are fine when I’m here.”


        Also, it’s entirely possible that these managers DID see the problem. If so, what were they going to do? They didn’t have the authority to challenge corporate. They couldn’t do anything to blunt the wrath from above. They couldn’t challenge the status quo. So much easier to say, “I’ve put three managers in that place and they all sucked.”

        1. SolkaTruesilver says:

          I guess this is why you need someone with the authority to override the system to come and try to manage the franchise on his own for a month when a specific franchise becomes “troublemaking”.

          If you burn through your managers in a systematic way, and all of them reports the same problems, then there seriously might be a problem with the franchise/system. Assuming you had 3-4 dumbass teenagers in a row with not a ounce of competence between them is a lousy assumption to make. The probability curve can’t be that biased against you.

          1. Shamus says:

            Worse: These were store managers. These are usually experienced people well over 30, not dumb teenagers.

            So yeah, it really was terrible to chew through those people.

            I’m betting that “someone with authority to override the system” simply didn’t exist. Store managers are under district managers, who are under region managers. Yet I’mm willing to bet not even a region manager had the authority to critique the computer system.

            In fact, this is a big reason why I always say “Hire smart people. Trust them to do their jobs.” (I don’t know if I came up with that or heard it elsewhere, but I’ve been saying it since the late 90’s at least.) It’s no good hiring some brilliant person with an ivy-league degree for $100k+ a year, and then treat them like a minimum wage teenager with regards to their duties. (

            1. 4th Dimension says:

              That’s why you need couple of people in each big company on quality assessment/inspector/inquisition duties. People who’s judgment is trusted enough for them to say if some system doesn’t really work.

              1. Neil D says:

                I also get the impression (possibly mistaken) that they weren’t coming in prepared to find problems with the system; they came in trying to find out why these apparent idiots weren’t able to make the system work. Their only tool was a hammer so they came in looking for nails to hit.

              2. Raka says:

                This presumes that all of your inquisitors will be intelligent, reasonable people who don’t have personal philosophies that interfere with their ability to observe and analyze. And that they won’t be beholden to an inflexible and arbitrary set of metrics themselves (and if they aren’t, then they’re effectively unaccountable– and having an entire division of unaccountable people who have great authority is about as much fun as it sounds). And that they’ll have sufficient time to *properly* evaluate each “problem” situation instead of forming an opinion based on a vocal local employee or two and a non-representative week of observation. Etc, etc.

                So yes, a good inquisitor in good circumstances would be very helpful. A single bad one would be a turbo-charged zephyr of misery. And a codified institution of inquisitors is basically guaranteed to go wrong.

                Large-operation management is also an NP-hard problem. There are a lot of policies and procedures that genuinely are awful on the low level for a lot of people, but may also be the least-worst way of solving a problem or securing a benefit that’s really worth it on the larger scale. You can’t just say “this computer system gives us enormous advantages in efficiency most places, so use it there but don’t bother in places where it doesn’t work”. Or rather, you can, but that policy itself will have sweeping unforeseen consequences.

                I’m not Panglossian. There are plenty of decisions that are just plain dumb made at every level, and there are far too many that create massive suffering that can’t be justified by any level of profit. But seeing the problems on the local scale, and identifying solutions that would eliminate just those problems is easy. Implementing such solutions in a way that doesn’t come at a massive cost elsewhere is an industry that makes many-many billions of dollars every year and still has yet to come up a consistent and reliable approach.

                1. 4th Dimension says:

                  I was thinking their job would be more along the lines of truly assessing the situation. There shouldn’t be more than 5-6 these guys so that their boss/owner should be able to keep tabs on them. And yes I know I’m asking for an impossible skill set, but here are such people and this shouldn’t be a job you strive for, but you get if everybody is convinced you will do it well. Tricky but essential.

            2. DanMan says:

              Is that a trailing parethesis there to annoy grammar nazis or a smiley face with no eyes there to haunt my dreams?

              1. Paul Spooner says:

                It’s a frowny face with no eyes and an entire paragraph as a nose… to haunt your dreams.

                1. Atarlost says:

                  It’s a frowny face with one eye (the punctuation at the end of the last sentence) and no nose… to haunt your dreams. (

            3. decius says:

              My solution, as a store manager, would be to hand the district manager all of the notes about the goats and wolves in the schedule, describe all the expected spikes (Wal-Mart shift changes), and ask him to demonstrate a better schedule.

              Hey, I’m expecting to be fired shortly anyway…

            4. asterismW says:

              “Hire smart people. Trust them to do their jobs.”

              Can I come work for you? Please?

              This is exactly what I’m battling at my job and it’s frustrating to no end.

            5. Methermeneus says:

              The one thing I liked about back when I worked for a major chain bookstore: We did have problems, and did occasionally get complaints from on-high about scheduling vs. profit, but we were one of the two closest stores to the company president’s house, so generally if an executive stopped in to see what was going on, it was the boss’s boss’s boss’s boss and things needing fixing got fixed. They also used us to test out experimental programs and displays, since it was so easy just to pop in and see what progress was being made, so we could also blame a lot of our problems on that.

          2. Mrs. Peel says:

            I work for a large engineering organization, and I told my supervisors that I think every manager should have to do a 4-to-6-month rotation working hardware in the trenches with us. The processes the managers inflict on us are insane. For example, I recently had to do a set of tests on some hardware before flying it. The tests were quite simple – when I did the work on the uncontrolled equipment, it took about three hours, including an hour of buffer test in which the hardware was just sitting there filling up its buffer. The exact same work on the controlled flight hardware took at least two full days to complete, and that doesn’t even include the day beforehand to get the paperwork written and approved or the two to six weeks afterward to get the paperwork closed and uploaded to the system.

            I’m actually working on a system to improve these times, but I have a feeling it will go nowhere. We shall see.

            1. CTrees says:

              Look into Lean Six Sigma. It’s what I’ve been thinking about suggesting, from the original post, down through this entire thread, but it seems especially apropos here. Motorola is one of the HUGE proponents of the system, if you need a corporate giant to point towards.

              Ignoring some of the general criticisms (those problems mostly stem from taking everything too literally), and the fact that it’s nauseatingly corporate, LSS has a lot of value for finding and fixing these sorts of issues, if you can get management to accept it (and hey, that’s why you point to the giants like Motorola, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, etc. and how well it’s working for them!).

              In analyzing a process, the first step is to physically walk the process, and then there are several tools to weed out inefficiencies and make them OBVIOUS, even if they’re well hidden/management doesn’t think they’re there. Which… in almost everyone’s examples, would really, really help. But hey, the real problem with getting management to change is finding the right fulcrum, not a long enough lever.

              Also, hey, there’s a lot of math in it! Always fun!

              (Disclaimer: I’m a LSS Green Belt. It’s been good for my career, but also VERY helpful in making work Less Awful. But then again, my company not just supports LSS, but actually wrote the training course used by… let’s just say “some other groups.”)

        2. Joshua says:

          Interesting thought. Actually, my experience working in the (sit-down) restaurant field is that managers are specifically “labor shavers” in addition to their managerial duties. If a manager is salaried, and it’s slow, they send cooks and prep people home because they can cost between $10-$15 an hour, and managers don’t cost anything- their salaries are fixed cost. That’s why I’d often see the BoH(is that what it’s called? It’s been awhile) managers cutting cheese, thawing shrimp, etc.

        3. pinchy says:

          What I always loved working in a relatively big retail store was that even when a higher up did come to see us it was never at one of the more troubling times of the day/year. It was always during the day and generally at a relatively quiet time of the year- it really wasn’t a surprise when they couldn’t find anything wrong.

          If, however, they had have turned up in the month before Christmas when they kept sending me about twice as much stock as we had staff to actually put out on the shelves (and we weren’t allowed to hire any more temps at night) then they might have found one. I spent hours in our stockroom stacking pallets and boxes like a giant tetris game just so that we could actually fit all the stock inside the building- even though it was going to be a nightmare to ever find a specific item if we needed it. At one stage it got so bad you had to go up a ladder walk across several pallets of canned drinks and other solid items and then climb through the office window to get into our stockroom office simply because there was nowhere else to store them. We lost far more in sales by not having the products on the shelf than we would ever have spent on more staff.

          1. Veylon says:


            While it was never that bad at my store, we’ve had a few of those years where a good chunk the Christmas-specific stock gets sent back without ever making it to the salesfloor solely because not enough people were available to de-palletize and bring it out.

      2. Guthie says:

        “Theory > reality. Basic truth of management relations.”

        Basic truth of just about anything. My mentor in college used to constantly tell me that, “The gap between theory and reality is always bigger in reality than in theory.” Even making allowances for the fact that theory always works out better than reality, it’s nearly impossible to account for all the ways that that’s true. Add in the fact that a lot of people just assume that theory = reality because they can’t be bothered to think about the problem any harder, and you get the complete managerial disaster Shamus describes here. Except that it’s everywhere.

        1. Fists says:

          “The gap between theory and reality is always bigger in reality than in theory.”

          I love that, going to be one of my favourite aphorisms now

          1. Bryan says:

            “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, however…”

  15. Chuck Henebry says:

    I get the sense that someone over at Starbucks has got this stuff figured out. You remarked a few weeks ago how Starbucks employees are treated differently by customers than other fast food employees, as if baristas were really a different job. That’s part of it, but you also get the sense of strong teamwork to deal with rushes. And maybe (just maybe) upper management is willing to have extra employees on hand in off hours to deal with the rushes when they come.

    1. Robyrt says:

      Starbucks also has a comfortable markup, so they can afford to have 3 people on staff at all times. Taco Bell doesn’t have this option, as price is one of their key differentiators.

      1. DanMan says:

        This exactly. The reason you have these weird random bunches of customers is because Taco Hell is rediculously cheap. There’s a reason people call it the stoner hangout.

        Anytime your business model is to provide something at an extremely low cost, it gets very hard to keep costs down. When your big commercial is that you are selling something for $0.89, having a single person working at $5 an hour on the books for an extra hour is huge. You have to sell almost 6 extra items in that hour just to make ends meet.

        1. Raka says:

          Given that a $5/hr employee entails significant additional back-end expenditures, and that an item which sells for $.089 presumably costs you something in materials (except for fountain drinks, which are awfully close to pure profit): you have to sell a lot more than 6 an hour to pay for one employee. I don’t know the material/process cost for an average TBell item, but I’d be very surprised if the margins are anywhere near 30%.

          1. Peter H. Coffin says:

            Food cost higher than 25% of menu price in general are pretty rare. Mostly, 20% for envelope-figuring. Most of the rest is actually fixed costs being spread per menu item, though so there’s some variation by volume: if you sell lots of chalupas, your rent and hourly costs don’t really change so they actually end up decreasing, while food cost stays the same. That’s one of the reasons that you’ll see X items for some discount price specials so often. Then extra items are pretty much free for fixed costs, so they’re about 75% profit instead of (maybe) 30% profit so there’s plenty of room to sell the second one for a discount.

      2. Mari says:

        You must be referring to “The Taco Bell Rule.” Ordering more than $10 worth of Taco Bell food per person is a guaranteed trip to Misery-land. It will make you so sick that your grandchildren will be born nauseous and gassy. Meanwhile $10 at Starbucks gets you, what, a big cup of fancy coffee and maybe a muffin?

        But joking aside, I’ve had a couple of friends who worked at Starbucks part time as adults where they already had a lot of perspective and critical judgement skills. They were surprisingly complimentary of the management style at the stores where they worked.

      3. HeadHunter says:

        You can’t simply consider price as the factor. Yes, there is a markup, but the company, like any other, is still going to want to maximize profitability. That means getting the job done with as few people as possible… at all times.

        No, Starbucks never keeps an extra person on hand “just in case”. And regardless of the price comparisons, they still get rushes, just like any other business of its kind.

        Some rushes are predictable and can be planned for – the after-school or after-work rush, for instance. But if you factor in a sporting event, concert, or frequent road construction… those can’t be forecasted, and even knowing it’s happening gives you no concrete idea of when the rushes will occur, how frequently, or how many people will arrive at once.

        I was originally hired with the intent of embarking on the management track after my initial training. I decided very quickly that the (minimal) amount of extra compensation did not make up for the extra accountability, workload and unrealistic expectations.

        In every Starbucks store I’ve ever visited or worked in, the manager will don the green apron and get in the trenches at times. It’s a necessity. But not a single one of the district managers I’ve ever met has been a barista in the past.

        1. DanMan says:

          I disagree. The old philosophy was get as much as you can out of your employees to take in as much money as possible while spending as little money as possible. About 20 years ago, many companies discovered that they actually take in more money in the long haul if your employees and customers are happy, which will cost money.

          Unhappy and stressed employees cause poor service levels, which causes a bad customer experience which does not encourage future visits.

          It’s definitely a balancing act. The happiest you can make the customer (in most cases) is to give them everything for free, which won’t make you any money. But the more you invest in making a good experience, the more likely the customer is of returning and one way to make a good experience is to have happy employees.

    2. HeadHunter says:

      I have three years of Starbucks experience to dispute that theory.

      Starbucks stores face the same scheduling challenges, use the same type of forecasting, and have the same labor expectations as Shamus described.

      If there are “extra employees on hand”, it’s because the computer determined that we needed that many people on this date last year – never mind that maybe last year it was a (busy) Saturday evening and this year it’s a (slow) Sunday night.

      And labor is not just calculated on a daily or weekly basis – it’s done every few hours. If the store is at the risk of going over on labor, someone is getting sent home early. That’s great if you’re like me and it’s a part-time supplemental income – I often volunteered, as I’d rather spend the time at home with family. But if no one volunteers, they pick someone. That someone may not be able to afford to lose hours – not only for pay, but for benefit eligibility (which is calculated by quarterly hours accrued).

      Yes, the strong sense of teamwork IS a factor, I’ll grant that. When there was a rush, we’d band together and bust it out. But the real secret? Shamus hinted at it before… the store manager is key. A Starbucks manager often winds up working MANY extra hours so that the store doesn’t go over on labor. My managers routinely put in 10-20 extra hours a week, which wasn’t reflected in labor calculations due to their salary.

  16. Kdansky says:

    As a fellow engineer, this piece nearly physically hurt me while reading it. This is a perfect representation of many giant problems that plague our systems, and in many cases, there isn’t even someone who understands the issue (and then gets ignored by those who don’t get it), but rather, nobody understands it to begin with.

    Our local trains are always overcrowded. Except when you count the people, there is ample space. But the problem is that they all clump around the doors, because people for some reason prefer standing there for ten minutes instead of sitting down. And the reason, I believe, is simple: The train is designed with psychological hurdles (like a short stair) in between sitting down and the doors, and standing there just turns out to be very convenient. If the designers of that train would just understand that the trains need more doors which are easier to access, and not a ton of seats, then we would not have these problems.

    1. DaveMc says:

      Gah, that crowding-the-front problem drives me crazy, though I encounter it on buses rather than trains (the trains here in Toronto have no barriers to moving further in, and people don’t tend to squash up to the doors like demented herd animals the way they do on the buses). I always force my way to the back of the bus and think “Man, you could go roller-blading back here!”

    2. Rodyle says:

      Yeah… I know this problem. Worst thing is: when you tell them to move into the coupe, nobody listens.

      On the other hand, I’ve also seen it played straight: I currently live in a small city near Utrecht, with a lot of students living there. This means there’s a reasonably large in- and efflux at certain times of the day. HOWEVER, since outside of those hours, the buses are practically empty, the average number of passengers per bus is fine, so the company is not going to add extra buses in rush hours.

      1. Tizzy says:

        Ack! Do people know only averages? Have they heard of variance?

        That reminds me of the old joke about the statistician who was only comfortable with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer…

  17. Raygereio says:

    I'm upset because the engineer in me can see a malfunctioning and self-destructive system, but I have no means or authority to fix it.

    This isn’t just an engineer-thing. I often feel like this. It’s a simple matter of analysing the situation and applying logic. It shouldn’t be hard and yet for some reason it’s apparently impossible for the people that make decisions to actually do this.

    Example: Dutch Railways has a special offer for college graduates where they can travel by train for a year with reduced prices. Pretty good offer.
    The problem is that virtually noone knows that offer exists. In a newspaper there was an article where Dutch Railways was bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t market info about this directly to the college graduates as they had no way of getting the appropriate data.
    The simple sollution would have been to just ask the various universities to spread the word about this. You’ll quickly and efficiently get your info about your offer to your target demographic. But no, they’re busy bemoaning the fact that they don’t have the data necessary to waste a whole bunch of money on advertising mail.
    Another obvious example would be DRM, but I reckon that horse is long since dead on this site.

    I remain convinced that the moment you arrive at a place of power in any sort of large organisation; a fairy hits you with magic dust and you become so detached from reality, your office might as well inhabit Tamriel.

    1. Jarenth says:

      I almost missed out on that exact offer because I didn’t know about it. Then I fully missed out on it because I remembered I’m lazy, I work in the same city I live in, and riding the Dutch rails is about as much fun as trying to get a wireless connection going in a microwave store.

      1. Rodyle says:

        Wacht, wat voor deal hebben we het hier over, precies? Want ik zit namelijk tegen het einde van mijn bachelor aan te hikken, en ik zou korting bij de NS best kunnen gebruiken om mijn master nog even door te komen zonder 120 euro per maand aan reisgeld.

        The Dutch railway system is ridiculous, indeed. Always late, always expensive and never enough leg room

        1. lupus_amens says:

          Ze zijn er nu over aan t azijn zijken in t nieuws, dus ff de tv aan om 8 uur de komende dagen helpt misschien, anders google: ‘NS na studie voordeel’

          eerste result:

          denk dat dat helpt ;)

          1. Jarenth says:

            That’s the one, yes. I’m going to keep typing in English because I feel it adds to my allure of mystery.

        2. mac says:

          Really? I’ve only been a few times, but thought the train system there was excellent. Reasonably priced, very fast, and punctual.

          Disclaimer: I may have rather low standards, as I live in Ireland, where it takes over 2 hours (135 minutes) to go from Belfast to Dublin (165 km, 100 miles) by rail. No, seriously.

          Edit: was replying to ‘Dutch rail is ridiculous’, which isn’t clear at all.

          1. MisteR says:

            Dutch rail is actually pretty good, but Dutch people believe (me included) it should be better. Given that half the country is already paved with asphalt it’s a little unclear why the public transit isn’t more of a priority for the government.

            1. Raygereio says:

              Overall it’s pretty decent. Especially concidering the Dutch rail is one of the (if not the) busiest rail networks in the world.

              The problem is mainly with outdated machinery, equipment and rails on certain lines that gives the impression of constant trouble.
              Again: simple sollution. Instead of spending a lot of money year after year at patchjobs, just invest in new crap.

          2. Rodyle says:

            You have to keep in mind that times are not really a good measure here. Ireland is twice as large as the Netherlands (area-wise, that is). However, a similar distance would be Arnhem to Maastricht (167 km), which would take 2:40. Groningen Arnhem (173 km): 2:15. For me it’s worse though. These are all large cities, so you can most likely take an intercity directly to it. When you live in a backwater area though, it takes a lot longer. For example, when I still lived with my parents, I travelled from Harderwijk to the Uithof in Utrecht, basically a fourty-five minute trip with the car (when you’re not going during rush hours, that is). It took me 1.5 to 2 hours to get there or back. First I’d cycle to the railwaystation, sit in the train for 50 minutes and then take a bus to the Uithof. Back was even worse, since the train I had to take departs once each half hour.

            Reasonably priced: it depends on the destination, but I used to go from Harderwijk to The Hague once in a while for my DnD group. Even with my 40% off, it’s cheaper and about half an hour faster to go by car.

            But here’s the kicker: the railways here have an incredibly high number of delays and such. I frequently had to wait over fifteen minutes for my train, and if it arrived within five minutes of the promised time, it’d be quite on time. It was so bad that I decided to just take a train earlier (that’s thirty minutes!) just so I’d be on time.

            1. Jarenth says:

              I would do this for every exam I had. It was necessary so often, I’ve lost count.

  18. Dys says:

    Over the years of listening to my working friends bemoan the state of every place they ever worked at, I eventually realised that no matter where you go, no matter what you do, nobody anywhere has the faintest idea what the hell is going on. It’s a constant wonder to me how anything ever gets done.

    Case in point, one guy works for a pretty large financial company. They have a report generating system which monitors jobs done, and time taken, and spits out efficiency and effectiveness stats. Those are presented in the form of percentages of pre determined goals. The goals are set by the managers. i.e. the people whose performance is being monitored. The whole place consistently and miraculously operates at 120% efficiency. Nobody further up has the time to go through all of this and check on any of it, so it just gets passed straight up the line.

    In the end, the world is a chaotic system. Any attempt to analyse the real world using rigid models is doomed from inception. Consider a spherical cow of uniform density.

    1. This is indeed the problem. There are many stores like the one where Shamus worked where the metrics work out just fine. Heck, this protege of an acquaintance of mine manages one, and it’s not like he’s the regional manager who filters the reports upward or anything.

      Oh, wait. He is.

      (And the best thing is that He doesn’t have to do anything. The guy in charge of massaging the numbers knows perfectly well what results are supposed to show up on the desk. Enough of his predecessors have been let go for him to understand that. Sad how some people just don’t work out with some organisations.)

    2. Paul Spooner says:

      Right! When considering the massive waste and pervasive inefficiency, it is a constant amazement that society works at all. However, I think this is a particularly flawed observation. We have some idea of a “maximum theoretical efficency” of a system, and then always want to drive everything toward that. That’s good, but you can’t lose sight of what life would be like if it operated at peak efficiency all the time. You’d sleep in your office (no commute). You’d shower, exercise, and eat meals all at the same time (in a time-shared body care chamber). We would all live in a windowless hive, and take vacations to see the light of day.

      The engineer in me can’t help thinking that living like termites is an impressive optimization peak. I know that’s not the only alternative to rampant waste, but I don’t think any of us would be comfortable in a 90% Carnot efficiency society.

  19. lazlo says:

    I wonder if this problem is more common in food service? When I was in high school, I never worked food service (or any retail for that matter), but a bunch of the local Pizza Huts were clients of the electrical contractor I worked for. I recall when Pizza Hut rolled out their buffets, we ended up doing the electrical installation for most of them in the area. Most of the store managers thought it was really cool. Except for one. I talked to him some about it. His store was in a great location. It was always busy. His store did more business than any other Pizza Hut in the area by a factor of two or so. Most of his business was lunch. There were people waiting to be seated every single day from around 11 AM until 2-3 PM. And this buffet was replacing 3 tables in his dining area. He knew for a fact that he would lose at least 10% of his revenue. His bosses may have known, but they definitely didn’t care.

    1. Methermeneus says:

      It’s not food service specifically that encounters these problems even more than other aspects of life, but rather low-level “unskilled” labor, especially positions that require interaction with customers (which is the biggest “x-factor” in the calculations that always turn out so horribly wrong). That means that you will probably encounter these complaints slightly more often in food service, with retail running a close second. “Skilled labor” (artisans, engineers, programmers, many varied office workers) will still run into this, though less often due to their having a slightly closer relationship with the executives and less interaction with customers. Unskilled labor that has no customer interaction (day laborer on a construction site, random guy in a UPS distribution center, etc.) would encounter these problems the second least often due to having fewer real-world interruptions to separate their work from the theoretical model, and entrepreneurs and their employees have the fewest problems because they don’t have a theoretical model to live up to.

  20. Deadpool says:

    I work at a restaurant (amusingly not allowed to tell you which, but it’s a sit down, large chain restaurant) and we’re also the “problem” store. The system we have in place is a bit more complex but still similarly flawed. Every week we have to predict how much business we’ll do in an hour to hour basis, based on how we did last week and this week last year, then schedule accordingly. I am graded in how well the predictions turn out, how many hours I schedule over or under the “nescessary” based on what ACTUALLY happened that day.

    The computer also auto generates the schedule, which, with a huge staff (roughly 40 servers, 4 bussers, 6 hosts, 10 cooks, 4 dish, 8 prep) all with their OWN unique schedule needs… You can imagine what making the schedule is like for me. Pro tip for anyone looking for a restaurant job: If your application doesn’t say “Open Availability” you better be extra charismatic during that interview…

    During the actual shift, I start with +40 hours (60 on weekends). Every hour someone is working, the computer calculates how many guests are in the building against employees on the clock and either adds hours to it, or takes them away. This is updated every half hour.

    It’s FAR from a perfect system, but at the very least it helps in a situation like what you dealt with, where large spikes of business are what affect you. At least I have a record of what happened every half hour. If most of the day I did 20 guests every half hour, but between 5 and 5:30 and then between 7 and 7:30 I did 55, the numbers at the end of the night might not look perfect, but I can at least explain myself to someone. Even if they aren’t static about it. And still take it off my bonus anyways…

    1. decius says:

      The theoretical trick to handling those spikes is to have some shifts end at 6:00, and the relief arrive at 4:30.

      If you are only graded on results, then last week and last year are there to provide guidelines. Staff according to what your traffic will be. Make accurate conclusions from incomplete and misleading information.

      Also, NP-Hard problem with incomplete information that is not guaranteed to have a solution. Good luck!

  21. burningdragoon says:

    I can relate to this post pretty well, even though I’m technically already in the field I want to be in. I’ve been working in an IT position for about a year feeling like every day I come in is a day I’m hurting myself from finding a better place. My boss even said (though not as bluntly) that the past year has been a waste of time in terms of career/technical development.

    There aren’t any huge, business-destroying problems but there are plenty of clear issues that at best are handled by the core IT team and at worst, just aren’t ‘worth’ fixing. Either way I’ll sit around wondering what exactly they hired me for.

    Sometimes, and only sometimes, a random bs task will trickle down to me because no one else feels like doing it and I decided to whip something up that will make it easier for me to do it. Even if it’s just me (and the unfortunate guy who inherits my stuff when I finally get out of here) who reaps the (minor) benefits, I consider that a small personal victory.

    1. burningdragoon says:

      PS. I’ve noticed a distinct lack of tags on the posts following the ‘there are now tags’ post.

  22. Meredith says:

    This is definitely a problem with corporations in general. I keep threatening to quit my job and hire myself out as a common sense contractor. I’m just not cut out to work in a corporate environment and every day I get frustrated by some ridiculously overcomplicated process we have to do. If you think fast food is bad, work with attorneys sometime.

    The thing is, I can’t keep quiet about it when I see problems like this. I’d have ended up sending a really sarcastic e-mail to corporate and getting fired in Shamus’ case. I hate it when someone is shown a problem and just shrugs and does nothing about it.

  23. yd says:

    This experience mimics my experience working at a Grocery Store fairly well. Scheduling was a nightmare, and we could always tell which manager fixed the computer schedule just by looking at when we were assigned and how many screw-ups there were. We had one particular woman who was a scheduling genius – when she was at the helm, nothing went wrong.

    I attempted to fix the scheduling problem by writing my own algorithms a couple of times – once while working at the grocery store and off and on while trying to figure out my class schedules in college.

    In both cases I figured out how it’s really not an easy problem to solve. I really expected this particular entry to mention how you spent hours on the computer trying to write a better scheduler.

  24. Guthie says:

    Man, this dredged up memories of my time spent working in the university’s chemistry department stockroom. The details are completely different, but that feeling of anguish at seeing a blatantly broken system was exactly the same.

    We were responsible for preparing chemicals and lab equipment for all of the chemistry lab classes at the university. We also had to keep stock of all of this stuff, but we had no computer to do it with, and when I joined there was no preexisting system for taking stock. When we told our boss that we could develop a system to automatically calculate the amount of each chemical used (based on the experiments performed each week, which were consistent semester to semester) to help us keep stock, she got us a Pentium III with 256 MB RAM to run Access 2007. Needless to say, this did nothing to help us systematize anything.

    Ultimately, she was the problem, and everyone knew it. She was bitter that the physics department had three people doing her job, all of whom were making more money than her. So she decided that she just wouldn’t do anything. Mind you this was an environment with over 600 different chemicals, many of which should never be anywhere near one another, staffed by undergraduates with no training at all, using equipment that should’ve been phased out two decades ago, supplying the entire university’s chemical lab program. No pressure. But no one could fight her because her husband was the chair of the chemistry department.

    I walked out with no job waiting for me after two and a half years of that circus. I was just happy to get out with most of my body still intact.

    1. Steve C says:

      we could develop a system to automatically calculate the amount of each chemical used (based on the experiments performed each week, which were consistent semester to semester) to help us keep stock

      Wouldn’t that be a perfect case of looking to last year’s (or last semester’s) historical orders and using old orders to figure out new? Like what they did in Taco Bell, but useful?
      It wouldn’t help with taking inventory but it would help with replenishment.

      BTW isn’t it really dangerous for a chem lab not to have proper inventory? Stuff that could be used to seriously hurt people (or other illegal activities like cooking meth) comes out of school chem labs.

  25. Yes, and then, after refusing to listen to the many, many things you’ve noticed that are perpetually going wrong, they throw a big party to show how much they “value” you as an employee. A big party that YOU will not be able to attend, because YOU have to work.

    Yeah, been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.

    1. TSED says:

      My favourite is when they wise up to that and throw the party at work.

      That YOU can’t attend, because YOU DON’T work that day.

      Been in both of those hats. Still haven’t seen this fabled employee appreciation thing.

  26. Jabrwock says:

    Damn you for opening the gates I had securely locked around the nightmare memories of what was a 3 year stint at Burger King. I actually took up smoking during that time to help deal with the stress… quit smoking the day I quit BK…

    I will now go weep in the corner.

    My only consolation was that the regional boss had his office in the back, so when he came in an looked at the numbers for the night shift, and went “whaaa? why such terrible DT times?” I could tell him why. “Because my boss didn’t look at the calendar and see that Snoop Dog is in town and we’re the closest fast food place to the concert…”

  27. 12:45

    Restate my assumptions…

    1) Mathematics is the language of fast food.

    2) Everything around us can be understood through numbers.

    3) If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in fast food.

  28. LunarShadow says:

    This reminded me of my time at the bowling alley I used to work at. The GM blamed EVERYONE for her own mistakes, had the book keeper do most of her work since she (The GM) didn’t know how to do it. And of course the only person she liked was my immediate superior, who was a loud abrasive sexist jack ass (how the fuck he is still head of customer service boggles my mind) Which meant that if I had a legitimate issue, like say being swamped on Friday nights to the point that a second Customer Service Rep was not only welcome but pretty much needed. These were nights we were making $3000 from the bar alone and all 42 lanes are packed AND their is a waiting list. And working to 2am with this, closing, then cleaning till 4 am and then being bitched at for clocking out an hour late because we had so many people I couldn’t start early cause were were slampacked all the way to closing. And this is all with an hour commute. The GM also tried to call bullshit on me calling in sick with Pneumonia despite me literally sounding just a hair of an octave lower than James Earl JOnes

  29. Malkara says:

    Just yesterday, when I was digging around for an old article of yours that I’d remembered reading, I realized I’ve been reading this blog continuously for well over five years. Figured here’s as good a place as any to thank you for the many, many words.

  30. MichaelG says:

    I saw another version of theory > reality at A Big Company (ABC) that I worked for. ABC believed in Management with a capital M. I actually had a manager there tell me “the most important thing is no surprises. No bad surprises, but no good surprises either.”

    So they were stuck with a really destructive syndrome when it came to programming projects. They would plan them to death, resulting in phone book-sized specs — hundreds of pages. Then they’d put dozens of programmers on the project, all working in parallel to implement the spec. The spec had never been prototyped, never been demoed to customers, etc. It was just out of the heads of a bunch of “senior architects”, sales people, and wish lists from all the parts of the organization with clout. No design integrity at all, usually.

    Inevitably, the process wouldn’t work. The architecture was inflexible, the implementation was mediocre, the UI was a disaster, and when customers saw the early versions, they’d say “we didn’t ask for that!” And by the time there was a demo, the project would be over budget and late.

    So they’d start cutting features. And management would cut based on the “important” features (the ones they’d pitched to upper management) and what the schedule said would be the most expensive features. So important stuff would get left out, then put back in when it turned out you really needed it. They had no concept of what was easy vs. hard to implement, or what a customer would actually need to do the job.

    In the end, the project would be late, get crappy reviews from customers and everyone would be embarrassed at what a disaster it was. Some projects would just get so late and crippled that they’d be canceled.

    And after it was over, all the upper management would say “This should never happen again. Next time, we need to do more advance planning!”

  31. Methermeneus says:

    I actually found this quite entertaining to read. I found myself almost wishing that you would prove yourself to your bosses by writing a better scheduling program yourself (and given the problems you mentioned with the extant program you described, I have no doubt that you could), but then you started describing the unpredictable factors. Oh, god, do I hate working with those. The only truly predictable environments I ever worked in were a gas station (we were open till midnight, while most gas stations in the area closed at ten, so we’d get a bit of a rush from 10:15 to 10:45, then about a customer every five or ten minutes after that till closing) and a bookstore (when I was covering the floor in the mornings, anyway; the café was always a mess). Some fun things to try and schedule:

    Hours at a café inside a bookstore that is surrounded by restaurants (Will people eat here, or are they willing to walk 100 feet to the Friday’s? Will rain keep them from making that trek, or keep them from coming to the store in the first place?)

    Hours at a ballpark concession stand (How popular will today’s event be? Is it hot enough for people to be thirsty? Is it too hot for them to eat? Will the light rain in the middle of the event drive people home, or just under the concourse and therefore closer to our food?)

    Hours at a college cafeteria (Will people stop in between classes? Are they more likely to come in before or after a class? Will rain keep them in here or at home? Will the football game empty the dining hall as everyone goes to the stadium, or will it fill us to capacity because everyone wants to eat before the game?)

    The answer to all these questions, as you probably know from dealing with it at Taco Bell, is “Depends what the customers are thinking on this particular day.”

  32. swenson says:

    Ahaha, reminds me of the Gap outlet where I work. They just finished (actually, it was last year, come to think of it) totally remodeling the store, combining the regular Gap and Gap Kids and Baby into one very large store. The higher-ups, in their unending brilliance, decided to call it “Gap Factory Store” and touted it as a wonderful center of progressive retail techniques in which employees will be able to drift easily from job to job, smiling beautifully at wonderful customers who all sign up for Gap credit cards.

    As you can undoubtedly guess, things did not work like that. The convenient fitting rooms scattered about the sales floor made shoplifting rates skyrocket. The wonderful floor layout that would save employees time and energy walking… was pretty much like any other store ever. (In this particular case, the layout was based on a different store that supposedly did save employees time. A much, much smaller store. The layout did NOT scale up very well.) And so on and so forth.

    In this case, thankfully, because a lot of the things they were doing were experimental anyway, they did eventually change some, like taking out a lot of the fitting rooms on the floor, and they stopped trying to tell people it was soooo much better than previous plans. I will say this for it, the store has a really nice look to it, much better than your average Gap, and I am daily thankful they switched from the awful storage method of putting extra items on shelves above the sales racks. Goodness knows how many times I nearly fell to my death because some whiny customer wanted to know, well, are you absolutely sure you don’t have those gloves in chartreuse?

    EDIT: On a side note, regarding scheduling, customers in the store are actually fairly reasonable to predict, due to our particular location, although because it’s in an outdoor mall, weather does have a big impact. The problem is that the upper echelons want you to forever be making more money, so every day you have a sales goal based on previous years and the computer’s projection of customers that day. Inevitably, you usually don’t make it.

    Luckily, Black Friday’s coming up, and that usually does a bit to help the numbers! On the other hand, the store’s now opening at 10 PM Thanksgiving evening… and some employees have to be there at 9…

  33. Knight of Fools says:

    I have a manager that’s the embodiment of this system, which is probably why he’s been the manager for 7 years. Everything is about the numbers, numbers, numbers! When a new set of rules comes in, he’s super excited about it – Until upper management stops caring, at least, then everyone forgets about it.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t telling me through my radio headset how much money we’d made last year on this day and how much we needed to make this year, and how much we’d already made. It’s like slapping me and saying, “We’re making thousands of dollars in profit! Too bad you’re only paid minimum wage – Now go sell some protection plans and furniture!”

    It makes me want to strangle him with all the money he’s making. He doesn’t back the rest of the crew up like most ‘good’ managers do – He just sits in his office all day, worrying about numbers, while the rest of us are running around like headless chickens trying to handle both the customers and random tasks we have to take care of. It’s hard not to quit on the spot, sometimes.


    I’m also curious: Are you going to post about how you got over the anger/bitterness issue? I’ve been going through the same thing lately (And I’m in the same age range you were), and have been at a loss as to what to do about it. It’s frightening that I have so little control over my emotions despite being aware of how negative they are – So how did you get over it, if you don’t mind me asking?

    1. Shamus says:

      “Are you going to post about how you got over the anger/bitterness issue?”

      I didn’t cover it in the story, so I’ll touch on it here:

      Part of it had to do with my faith. (I had a lot of inner turmoil from believing one way and acting another. This is very bad for you.) Part of it had to do with my age. (Guys in their early 20’s do seem to have a lot of aggression and frustration.) Some of it was from the isolation I mentioned at the beginning of the post. (I didn’t really have friends, I had “people I hung out with”.) Part of it was from working in a job that gave me no satisfaction.

      Over the next couple of years I got my faith straightened out, matured a bit, and found some jobs where I was able to solve problems and be useful.

      1. Knight of Fools says:

        Thanks. I’m about in the same situation on all counts. I think I knew it before on some level, but it’s nice to hear it spelled out from someone that’s been through it, as sappy as it sounds. It encourages the part of me that says it’s going to be alright.

  34. LB says:

    Random curiosity: Can I ask what Pat did (does?) in the Navy?

    1. Jarenth says:

      My guess? Break things.

  35. ENC says:

    20 minutes in a restaurant?

    My average is an hour waiting at a restaurant, take away is probably 10 minutes including line time.

    Also, how busy do they get in the US? I rarely see stores have more than 15 people in them (if ever).

    Also, that ‘1 extra person’ can be doing a job like stocktakes in non-busy hours to save on Sundays when traffic is null and you hire a few kids to do it. Then you get to layoff the casuals when the system is optimised!

    1. Jabrwock says:

      I worked in one of the the busiest Burger Kings in western Canada (Saskatoon of all places), and we were lucky if there were only 15 people in the place. Usually 15 was the number of people in drive-thru alone. At supper rush on a welfare-check/payday alignment (my boss actually planned for those days, thank goodness, we nearly had 15 staff on hand…

      Unfortunately, the bean counters back in head office don’t see that the extra person you had stocked the shelves so the night shift wasn’t overwhelmed. All they saw was that your labour costs (vs sales) rose above X % for that time period, so you’re in trouble…

  36. Basekid says:

    As a student doing Work and Organisational Psychology, this is a very interesting post to read

  37. John F says:

    It’s all about the gemba

  38. Clint Olson says:

    “This pattern is very regular, to the point where you could know what time it is simply by observing the number of orders and the ratio of drive-through to dinning room customers.”

    “Dinning” should presumably be “dining”.

    1. Veylon says:

      1. a loud, confused noise; a continued tumultuous sound.

      3. to utter with clamor or persistent repetition.

      I dunno, I guess it could be either one. Or both at the same time. You know what customers are like in retail-type situations. Especially when there’s lots of them.

  39. megabyte says:

    I feel your pain when you describe the idiocy of the scheduling program. I worked retail for some time. I was lucky in my hours in that I could work solid blocks of time from afternoons and until closing time. I saw a lot of people who had to figure out how to bounce around the 39-and-a-half hours of part time that the company would allow them (don’t get me started on THAT policy) so they could fit in their other part-time jobs they needed to do just to pay the rent.

    I discussed the problem of matching schedules with a friend of mine who is a mathematician of sorts. He told me that trying to fill in matching patterns for a lot of entries at once is a really hard problem for computers. There isn’t a proven algorithm for verifying matching patterns other than brute force, and the more schedules you have to match up without creating conflict, the longer it takes to find valid or approximate solutions, and they’s assuming they even exists.

  40. Leah says:

    I hate benye bost aeround

  41. Jami Francis says:

    Great read. It always a pleasure to read a good writer. Thanks for valuing my time and allowing me to value yours. Best regards, Jami

  42. A says:

    I was working in supermarket warehouse.

    In Russia, we have inefficient system called 1C. Sometimes we had to enter numbers or barcodes manually, but to switch to next line have to press tab many times.

    I then later in my free time find how barcodes work and make same thing in Excel instead of 1C, I could press enter and it switched to next line, it reduced a lot of mistakes (if you press tab wrong number of time and enter data in wrong cell) and make it much faster.

    1C also didn’t allowe to scal barcodes that have KG’s instead of integer items, so we had to manually type it instead of using scanner….

    It didn’t had control sum, so we had to look every cell and documents to see if numbers are right.

    When I did my thing in excel, I could just scan and it automatically get all numbers correctly.

    I never told anyone about my excel innovation except for guy in other shift… but he didn’t adopted it anyway.

    I also emailed programmer to add barcodes to some documents… but he only made it worse, instead of scannable barcodes he write them with Arial font…. and they all had 0000 in KG’s, they can’t even be used for typing manually (because it’s hard to manually calculate barcode control sum), and it also made document less readable because added 1 extra useless column between article and KG’s.

    Oh yeah, and we had to email to engineers that are in central office, to cancel confirmed documents if they made mistake.

    When one of higher rank guys left job, he game me his account and I do it myself, saved so much time. Never told anyone because it’s bending rules.

    Few years later when I wasn’t working here, I read 1C programmers are a joke. Nobody respect them (and also nobody like 1C language, because it uses cyrillic letters instead of latin… which is absurd)

    It seems like I was the only one cared how inefficient system is.

    It was long before AI thing, I was thinking back them in future my job will be done by AI. I think they could save a lot of money and earn more by just hiring better programmer.

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