Why you should go to CAST

Last year, when the Association for Software Testing announced the location for their next annual conference CAST 2015, Grand Rapids, MI, there was an up-roar happening on social media and back channels like Skype and private conversations. To my own surprise, I saw members of the context-driven testing community falling short of their very own principles. Rather than observing and interacting with people, it seemed that some persons preferred to derive their knowledge about Grand Rapids based upon a prior CAST conference there. Experience may be a good resource to start looking at, but I found that I should trust the folks from the local area that I knew to put together an awesome conference – more so since they could explain to me why the past experience was not so well received. When it came to the October 2014 AST board member meeting, Pete Walen, the conference chair, the guy who managed to send in a proposal prior to CAST 2014 so that the AST board could decide upon it, invited us to the conference location, so that it was easy to see for us where we were going with the proposal. Here is what I learned during my two nights in the conference venue – and why I think you should attend.

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Not so fast food

A while ago I considered adding some new type pf posts to my blog. There are many things that I notice in my leisure time at all the different spots that makes most folks wouldn’t think about, yet I see a relation to some of the stuff that I learned while diving into Agile software development. This blog entry kicks off these new type of posts.

I am not sure about other places on Earth, but in Germany the McDonald’s corporation recently started to re-design their restaurants. (Yes, I admit that at times a McDonald’s is one of my choices to take something to eat while switching trains.) They are now offering two types of counters together with a self-service counter using credit cards or bank cards. The in-person counters a split by the counter where you order and pay for your meal, and the counter where you can then pick your meal. Based upon subjective experiences, I think this move is a dramatic move away from customer friendliness.

What’s the problem?

My observation into many of these encounters was, that I needed to wait way longer to get food than it was the case before this re-design. Waiting times used to annoying to us customers even in the old design, but now with the new design, things got worse according to my personal experiences. Of course, it’s not much of a problem if there are few other customers. But imagine the situation when a full train arrives with hundreds of passengers during lunchtime at a local train station. Some of them at least will walk into the nearest McDonald’s to grab some food.

In the old workflow design, there were usually three to five counters open during such high times. There were several queues forming in front of these counters, you would be waiting in line for your turn, order, pay, wait for your meal to be prepared, and then leave. Overall this had been between 5-15 minutes at times for me.

Now let’s take a look at the new workflow design. You enter the restaurant, see two open counters with lots of folks waiting there, and you see the full list of already ordered meals on the screen above the counter for the pick-up. If you’re like me you check the self-service machines in such case. Funny thing is that in 95% of the times I ran into such a situation, these were out of order.

So, we get in line in front of the in-person counters. We wait until it’s our turn, order, pay, and receive a receipt with a number for the pick-up counter. There you queue up until it’s your turn to pick up your meal. But wait, there is only one guy serving the pick-up counter. So, all the customers from the two in-person order counters end up in a single queue to get their food. It would be even worse if one or more of the three self-service machines worked.

What’s happening here?

As Mary Poppendieck taught me a while ago, whenever there is a queue, there is certainly sub-optimization happening. What’s the sub-optimization here? McDonald’s seems to optimize for cash-flows and sparing personell costs from my point of view. Two in-person counters, and one guy serving the meals is three quarters of the salary they used to pay before the re-design.

Of course, people wouldn’t buy into that without some benefits. The self-service machines and the new fancy restaurant layout seem to be the selling points here. But it seems that they have under-estimated the demand and the necessary queues for such a move.

So, what’s better about the old system?

Did you notice the hand-off between the two counters? Yeah, I think this is the major culprit. On face value, you saved one person’s salary with the new workflow. On the other hand, you made it way harder for people to support each other.

Consider this situation that I observed last week. The pick-up counter was heavily under stress with 5-10 items still in line. At some point one of the in-person counters clerks decided to help them out, move from the counter, and got into the kitchen. Unfortunately the other cashier also had to leave for some reason I didn’t get. I observed five new customers stepping into the restaurant totally confused about where to get food, since none of the cashier stations was served.

The problem is that the new workflow makes it close to impossible for other people in the restaurant to help out the current bottleneck in the overall system. In the past I have observed folks from McCafe stepping in to help out others if there was a need. Now, it’s impossible.

All of this came with the specialization that slipped into the workflow from separating cashing and food preparations. The one additional hand-off made it less likely for me personally to enter a McDonald’s restaurant if I want to use my 15 minutes train switching time to grab something to eat. Maybe my wife will like this in the long, but on face value, I think McDonald’s harmed their overall business more than necessary with this one additional hand-off and specialization that happened alongside.

I certainly don’t know any business numbers from McDonald’s, but I imagine that client happiness with the new workflow restaurants dropped dramatically probably resulting in fewer returning customers.

Now, think what happened when the software industry introduced hand-offs between Analysis, Design, Architecture, Coding, and Testing.