A couple of days before Christmas, I went to buy some cheese.  So did a lot of other people.  The queue was out of the door and well down the street.  Inside, the initial impression was of utter chaos:  there were twelve people serving in a space which could comfortably accommodate about four.  Lindsey Schechter provides a vivid description of how it feels on the other side of the counter, from her stint working there at Christmas three years ago:

The days preceeding Xmas were long and busy. The “line down the block” I’d been promised finally appeared and remained, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., until the very eve of Xmas. In anticipation, management had hired a team of grunts, students mostly, to do all the washing, packing, and refilling of supplies. They also called in ringers from the administration and former mongers with decades of experience between them to insure that service never lagged.

With all the extra help, working behind the counter became a fight for survival. Physical space was at such a premium that friendly monger relations at times took on more than a hint of aggression. The successful were those who moved most creatively: wrapped on the smallest surfaces, cut from the most awkward angles, used the till no matter how many stood in their path.

What was extraordinary about the scene is not that shops can still be busy, it was how self-evidently the staff were enjoying themselves and how passionate they were about the cheese they were selling – admittedly that’s rather easier with their cheese than if they had been selling shrink-wrapped supermarket plastic, but nonetheless impressive given the relentless pressure of customers.  Every customer had their needs expertly – if swiftly – assessed.  Every customer got to taste every cheese they wanted – and a few they had never intended to taste.

This is not a matter of hiring a few cheerful cheese lovers and letting them get on with it.  It’s about having structures and processes which make that work consistently and under pressure.  Of course it matters who you start with, and they are pretty clear about that:

There are lots of jobs at Neal’s Yard Dairy that you might not expect…  We have people moving cheese, patting cheese, turning cheese, cleaning cheese, selling cheese, cutting cheese, counting cheese, wrapping cheese and talking to cheese sometimes. But all of us eat cheese and talk about it all the time.

But beyond that

Our primary job as mongers is to give everyone a taste of every cheese they will buy, may buy, or, if we’re really persuasive, would never dream of buying. “Put it in their mouths,” is a company motto.

This makes for some very personal service. There’s no simple “Cheddar” or “Stilton;” there’s a selection of three mature, traditional Cheddars or an assortment of cheddar-like lovelies. For Stilton, there’s one: the hallowed Colston Bassett made to a unique NYD recipe. Beyond that there are dozens of delicate young goat cheeses, gooey Irish washed rinds, and soft-ripened sheep’s bries.

To match the right cheese with its eater, we ask a lot of questions. These inquiries can, at times, sound strange. “Would you like your goat smelly and hard or soft and smelly?”

So what – if anything – does any of that tell us about service delivery in the public sector?  The temptation to suggest that they are as different as chalk from cheese is almost overwhelming, not least because they clearly are.  And it would be completely silly to suggest that standing in a queue with the prospect of good cheese at the end of it is ever going to be quite like sitting in a call centre queue with the prospect of discharging some obligation to government at the end of it.  But there are a few pointers:

  • Making the queue visible Not quite as obvious as it sounds:  the queue in the picture looks very visible, but doesn’t provide the critical piece of information:  if I join it now, how long do I have to wait?  When I first saw the cheese queue, I was tempted to walk past – but there was a man at the door looking out for people like me to tell us that despite the number of people, waiting time would be less than ten minutes.  Compare that with a queue I observed at a government office a while ago, where if a customer had the temerity to ask how long they were going to have to wait, they were shown the pile of forms in the pending pile – which without knowledge of the number of staff on duty and the average time each one took to deal with, conveyed precisely no information whatsoever.  Similarly, ‘we are very busy at the moment, please hold until you can’t bear the tinny music any longer’ is dramatically less useful than ‘we are currently answering calls in six minutes’.
  • Simple things can make a big difference The cheese shop has a set of cubby holes so that the cheese accumulating for one customer is kept together and stopped from getting confused with the identical-looking packets accumulating for another.  Nothing remotely high tech about it – but I am pretty sure that it designs out vast amounts of confusion and allows the whole operation to operate consistently at top speed.  Ten to one whoever came up with that idea didn’t think they were implementing lean – but that doesn’t stop it from being a beautiful example of exactly that.
  • Happy staff make customers happy Hard to pin down, and harder still to quantify, but enthusiasm is infectious, and I suspect contributes to cheese shop turnover at least as much as their detailed knowledge of cheese (though that certainly does no harm).  Public sector service providers have tended to be slow to recognise that there is a social as well as transactional component to any exchange with a customer – the customer who feels respected and engaged with as an individual will come away much more positively than the customer who is made to feel like a case file or a nuisance – even if in some objective sense they have received exactly the same service.  That has big implications for the management of public services, which in many cases are only now being recognised.

None of that means that cheese shops provide the model for public service design.  But it is another reminder that it’s not hard to find ideas once you start looking for them.