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Cost Standards Come to the Service Industry

For many years, managers manufacturing have measured activities to a farthing using methods developed over a hundred years ago with the time and motion theories of Frederick Taylor. But throughout most of these last hundred years, the service industries have managed to elude this management approach. That may be changing.

The major consulting firm, Accenture Ltd., has a unit named Operations Workforce Optimization (OWO). This consulting group has created labor standards for several retail chains. These labor standards create the equivalent of standard costs for service employees, such as cashiers and stock people.

These new standard cost measurements, along with ubiquitous electronic technology, enable retailers to measure precisely the productivity of some service employees. A clock on the cash register starts as soon as a cashier rings out the previous customer. The clock continues to run until the current customer has paid and received a receipt. This measure of time compares to standards established by OWO and the company. The company then counsels low-performing cashiers to improve their times. OWO maintains that its methods can cut labor costs by 5 to 15%.

The question is, how do retailers best use this cost innovation? Certainly, they should be able to reduce costs by bringing poor performing employees up to a reasonable standard. At least some of the cost savings originate here. But they also should be able to improve customer service by reducing the time the customer must spend in the check-out line. Of course, reducing a customer’s time and reducing workforce at the same time can quickly work at cross purposes. There is where management must balance conflicting opportunities. In some cases, the cashiers, who are under the measurement system, have told customers they cannot talk to them, or do anything extra, because they are “on the clock.” In other cases, customers have found that they do, in fact, spend less time checking out. It will take an astute management team to make these trade-offs properly so that costs go down and customer service goes up at the same time. If the customer sees no benefit, the cost reduction can become self defeating. (See “Costs: The Last Consideration” in the Perspectives on StrategyStreet.com.)

These cost management innovations by OWO and its client retailers are examples of efforts companies make to reduce the units of input, in this case employees, not producing output, in this case customer transactions. The simple measurement of employee productivity is one major approach to reducing lost or wasted input. There are several other approaches producing the same effect. You can shift demand from high demand to low demand locations or times. You can improve the accuracy of the forecast in order to staff more appropriately. You may use short-term sources of help to shave the peak of demand with stretched capacity. And you can speed the process so employees spend less time waiting. (See the cost reduction ideas in the Improve/Costs/Reduce Units of Input Available but not Producing Output on StrategyStreet.com.)

Each of these approaches improve productivity if the company implements them right. If they are done poorly, however, they can actually reduce margins.

Posted 12/11/08

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