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Monday Musings: Weren’t Computers Supposed to Make Us More Efficient?

I’m proud to present a new feature of our site: Monday Musings.

Each Monday  Every other Monday Every third Monday Occasionally, on a Monday, I’ll be posting a short thought or observation about technology in business. In the grand blog tradition, I’m using an alliterative heading title to designate this feature.

This week’s Monday Musing came about during a lunchtime visit to the local sub shop. They recently installed a fancy new touch-screen cash register—presumably to make their operation more efficient than hand-written slips and adding-machine receipts. In the few times I’ve been there since the upgrade, I’ve noticed something curious.

Most people walk in to a sub shop and start rattling off their order: “I’ll take a small pastrami with mustard, and a large eggplant parm.” That still happens here, but now the guy behind the counter has to stop them and say, “Here, or to go?” You see, the system won’t let him start ringing up the order until he has told it whether the order is eat-in or take-out. Of course, this throws people off, and he usually has to ask again, and then the customer has to repeat the order.

This is clearly a case of system design that doesn’t meet real-world business practices. At busy times, this slight delay results in a longer line, and less efficient customer service. Of course, it’s not just in retail settings where this problem occurs. Web sites, ERP systems, contact management systems, and even telephone systems suffer from this sort of procedural paralysis, where an inflexible design brings things to a halt because no one considered what happens in the real world.

Computers follow linear workflows. Life often does not. When there is significant value in the trade-off, your process must adapt to your system. Generally though, your system should adapt to your process—or you shouldn’t use that system.

Sometimes, a slip of paper and a sharp pencil are the best tools for the job.

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