Kanban principles are everywhere; even in the British pub!

The new rules on limiting customers numbers and table service seem to have positively affected flow in British pubs. We knew this would be the case, of course if we look at it through a Kanban lens…

As many of you are only too painfully aware, the great British pub has had a hard time throughout the pandemic. Closed for months on end, they briefly opened only to be unceromoniously shut a few weeks later as the new variant took hold. At time of writing (early May 2021), they are open, but only allowed to serve customers outside. As it now Spring in the UK, this means very changeable weather; 30deg C last year, but frosty nights the same dates this year. This year, May has been almost constantly windy, and occasionally showery. And cold; not ideal for outdoor hospitality, but this is the UK, and it takes way more than that to keep us from our pubs!

Outside or (soon to be) inside, though, there are two things that have changed from pre-pandemic days; table service and table booking. In the “old normal”, we would simply waltz into a pub, lean on the bar, order a round of drinks then take them to a table. If we could find one. This “self-service” approach may seem a bit odd to non-UK inhabitants, particularly when they see the eye-watering prices charged for drinks, but that’s how we’ve always done it. Table service! I don’t think so; we’re not in the Ritz!

Of course, all that has now had to change. Table service is mandated — no ordering at the bar — to limit social contact. You can only leave the table to “make room for more drinks”, and then have to wear a mask to do so. This has changed the pub experience in many ways, not least the fact that we go to the pub to meet people, not sit at a table with the same people we’ve been locked down for a year with.

The other big change, though is table booking. To enable control of the number of people in pubs, you have to book online to get a (maximum 2 hour) slot. Drinks are ordered and paid for from an app, and arrive a few minutes after ordering.

And all this got me thinking about flow. In the old ways of working, there were a few very busy periods; 5–50PM to 7PM as people had drinks after work, for instance, and quiet periods when staff were just standing around. But, there was also the unexpected; a coach party turns up, or all those locals who usually drink for 2 hours every Friday have gone away on a boys weekend. Difficult to predict how many staff are need, or how much stock. Also in busy periods, queues quickly build up as there are only a limited number of beer pumps, and limited number of tills to ring up purchases. This is compounded by the fact that the bar person taking the order also pours the drinks, and also takes the payment. Lots of bottlenecks (not just on the beer bottles 😁), lots of unpredictability and uneven flow throughout each session the pub is open.

If we contrast that with the new situation, however, it quickly becomes obvious that it is better for the pubs in many ways. This is confirmed by the fact that our local pub had their busiest day ever under the new system, even though the pub was never as full as it would have been during “old system” busy periods, due to customer numbers being limited. There are two reasons for this; flow is better (more regular) and throughput is more predictable. In pure Kanban terms, work in progress (WIP) is lower but more consistent.

There is also a single flow of work, unlike before. If you think about it, the old system had every staff member using their own process/queue in parallel — take the order, pour the drinks, deliver the drinks, take the payment. These queues often clashed over shared resources —beer pumps, tills, etc. — and this was worse in the busiest periods. Now, of course, there is a single queue that we can map onto a Kanban board with these columns:

  • Orders in (already paid for)
  • Pour drinks
  • Deliver drinks to tables

These can now be much more efficient; for instance, one member of staff can just pour drinks. Another can put multiple orders on trays to be delivered. Another can just deliver trays of drinks. And the number of people in each of these roles can be flexed depending on demand (we know everybody is T- or E-shaped as they used to do every role in the old system!)

The flow through the system is also more predictable — there is less variation in the number of customers as they are all booking a limited number of slots. Instead of a couple of really busy periods each night, the pub is “fairly busy” all night long; if people can’t get a 5PM slot, they’re usually fine with a 7PM one. In fact, lets not forget a nation of pub addicts have not been in a pub for year — most will take any slot they can get!

(As it happens, customers tend to drink more as they feel the the pressure of the end of their time slot and quickly order extra rounds, but I’m not sure what that has to do with Kanban or flow…)

So, this predictablility in demand and limit to the WIP makes it a win for the pub once they adapt to the new ways of working. Particularly at this early stage of lockdown easing, they are pretty much fully booked all night, every night, so they know exactly how many customers they have each night. To work out how many staff they need, and what to order, they simply need to estimate the number of drinks each person will order. And what unit do they use to estimate this?

Well, it’s obvious — story pints…

(Note: Some might think that this whole article was just a way to make that terrible pun at the end, but I can’t possibly comment… 😁)

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Building online versions of agile workshops such as the No Estimates game, to see how close we can get to the face-to-face experience for remote or hybrid teams

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Steve Wells

Building online versions of agile workshops such as the No Estimates game, to see how close we can get to the face-to-face experience for remote or hybrid teams