Striking a Balance at Starbucks

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One summer during college, I got a job at coffee shop owned by a chain--not Starbucks, but a mid-sized chain that had a big presence where I went to school, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before I started, I had to go through a mind-numbing training that lasted almost a week, where we learned about the company's policies and procedures. For example, at the beginning of every shift, all the baristas were supposed to get together, sample the coffees, and discuss them ("Earthy, with a fruity finish," etc.).

Here's the problem: the rules were so strict, they were impossible to follow. But because of the strict rules, managers didn't have the freedom to make up rules of their own. As a result, there were essentially no rules. I remember wiping down the shelf holding the sugar syrups, and it seemed like it hadn't been cleaned in weeks. There was a half-inch layer of sugar crystals that had formed a crust underneath the syrup bottles. It was disgusting. After about three weeks, I left a note for my manager and quit. (Sorry, Mr. Manager, I realize now that wasn't the mature thing to do.)

This is the dilemma that Howard Schultz, the boomerang CEO of Starbucks, faces today. He wants to maintain high standards across all 7,100 stores. But he doesn't want the stores to feel faceless or corporate. He has to strike a balance--make sure all the workers are well trained and adhere to some base level of service, while giving managers and baristas the freedom to make up some rules of their own.

How should he do it? What's your advice for Howard Schultz? And do you think closing the stores last night for a three-hour retraining was a step in the right direction? By the way, check out this this clip of Inc.com's senior editor, Rod Kurtz, discussing Starbucks on Fox last night. While Rod and I seem to agree that closing the stores for three hours to retrain workers was a bad idea, the other guests thought it was a great move. What do you think?

UPDATE: I just perused the Starbucks Gossip blog. My favorite line, from the comments section: "Like many, I felt invigorated about my partner's passion."

Last updated: Feb 27, 2008




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