I went to a fast food restaurant today to grab lunch. They have a system that works like this:

First an employee at the counter takes your order and gives you a receipt with your order number on it.

Then the order appears behind them on a repurposed computer monitor.

Other employees busy themselves preparing the order and then they pass your food to the person who dispenses drinks.

It’s this last person’s job to make the drinks and yell out your order number.

In the abstract, this little system is reminiscent of Ford’s innovations. The concerns are separated, ready to prompt huge gains in efficiency.

In practice, however, it can go horribly wrong.

Today, I was stood in a growing crowd of ‘served’ customers who were waiting for their food. The order taker was moving as fast as she could, doing her job the best way she knew how, but it was causing carnage down the line.

Some customers had been waiting fifteen minutes for their food. Others, who were prevented by a language barrier from understanding the rushed yells of numbers, kept coming forward to claim food that wasn’t theirs.

The customers got annoyed, the staff got annoyed, the manager got annoyed. Some people left the queue once they saw how long it would take to get their food.

Nobody was happy with the system. And yet, it is, on paper, more efficient.

Lots of people confuse efficiency for better. But they can be poles apart.

Even in a perfect world, where every customer speaks the language of the employees, where the employees are able to tolerate stress, where the system works exactly as designed, it still wouldn’t be better.

Better makes people smile. Faster, bigger, cheaper, these things are bad facsimiles for genuine enjoyment and engagement.

Aim to be better, not more efficient.

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