Death by a million tiny mistakes


Is your kitchen transparent?

The coupon drew me in. 25% off any lunch item. So I ordered my chicken sandwich and chose my side, turkey chili.


Tried to pay the woman who took my order, but she said I had to pay at a separate register. OK.


They took my name, and I went to the other register. As I’m walking over, they ask “oh, did you want that toasted?” – sure. Gave my name to the register operator, and saw the total – an extra $2.50 for the chili. No, I want it as part of the “pick 2? big sign on the wall.


Oh, that’s only if you get a half-sandwich. Ah yes, Silly of me to miss the 12pt font clarifying that detail. Please remove the side, then.


OK, that requires a manager. He comes over to adjust the register. I give my coupon, the register girl dutifully discounts the total.


“Do you want chips, potato salad, or cole slaw?” – huh? I wanted a side of turkey chili, but that’s only for the half-sandwich deal. Oh, the side comes with the full sandwich. OK. Well, I want cole slaw I guess (but I really wanted that chili).


“Harold?” – I come over, ready for my food. “We’re out of the regular bread we use for the chicken sandwich, what kind do you want instead?” – ummmm, I guess the peppercorn potato one.


I go back to the waiting area.


“Harold?” – I come over, ready for my food. “Do you want that toasted?” – sigh. Pause. “Yes.”

“Oh, and we’re out of out of cole slaw. So what side would you like?” I don’t want either, but I shrug and say “potato salad”.


Everyone behind the counter looks stressed, and they are bumping into each other regularly. It looks like a finely un-tuned machine.


Finally I hear “Harold?” – I come over and get my bag. Just for fun, I look inside. No side dish. How did I know that? I wait while all of their backs are turned toward the food prep area and not towards the line. Finally I say “hello? I didn’t get my side dish.” – a guy says “what did you want?” – I remarked “I don’t think I had much of a choice at this point, potato salad” – he quickly plops one in there and says “sorry about that.”


As I walk out of the store, I look back at the people working there. They’re all trying. I want to be able to point to one person and say “oh, that person didn’t do a good job, no big deal” – but it wasn’t that. I realize that the failure was systemic. From the order-taker who was being trained in front of me (slowing down my order), to the 3 people trying to make the food to order, to the cashier who couldn’t adjust my “remove the chili” adjustment, all of them made a bunch of little mistakes. It was 12:40pm on a Saturday. You’re out of cole slaw already? It’s a lunch place! Saturdays have to be busy in general so it’s not like they didn’t know cole slaw was going to be needed.


And couldn’t the person taking my order know about them being out of the regular bread? And why wasn’t the “toast it” detail preserved as a part of my order. And a manager needs to override the removal of an item? Really?


I don’t get any satisfaction from trashing the company with an online review, but I decided to think about my own business. People call us to schedule appointments. There’s probably some critical info that if we told them on the initial call, it would save considerable waiting and frustration on the part of the customer.


But what’s terrifying is that if I asked each person at the store if there was a big problem with my order, none of them would say “yes” – they would only know about the small item relating to their part of the interaction. This terrifies me because I could imagine my staff all making very small, seemingly unimportant mistakes but contributing to a huge disappointment on the part of the customer. A manager cannot quickly “fix” a dozen small mistakes, though. This is an inherent weakness of a decentralized process and of the assembly line approach. Unlike Chipotle or Subway where you are literally walking in sync with the movement of your food and conversing with the people making your to-order item being made in front of you, my lunch was not a transparent or an intentionally interactive process. Is it any wonder those are super successful brands? They have engineered every step. Coupons test the strength of their systems, instead of breaking them.


Mistakes are fine. Customers actually are fine with mistakes, especially if they seem them being made. It’s easy to shout “NO PICKLES” if you see the person about to put pickles on your sandwich. But if you’re two blocks away and you’re finding out of a drive-thru mistake, your patience and understanding plummets. I was made aware of all of the mistakes of my meal after they were being made. The choreography of the meal was awful. The sandwich ended up tasting fine. But I am not going back, even for 50% off. How ironic that a coupon designed to get me to try their new product ended up hurting their brand. It would have been better for me to not go in at all.


Don’t eliminate the possibility of mistakes. Try to reduce, sure. But set up your process so your customer is there for a dialog about the mistakes at the right moment. And not a moment too late.

Mann Consulting, LLC

282 Second St. #400

San Francisco, CA 94105

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