by Esther Schindler

No Anchovies, Please

Feb 01, 20085 mins
Enterprise Architecture

One side effect of improved supply chains is the ability to track items through their path from manufacturing to the THUNK in front of the purchaser’s doorstep. Overall, that’s a good thing—though sometimes it presents just a little bit too much visibility into the company’s decision-making.

It all started when Kim Nash pointed us at a press release touting “Domino’s Launches Revolutionary Customer Tool: Pizza Tracker.” Now, the company promises, you can follow the progress of your order online from the time you click the “Place Order” button or hang up the telephone until the Domino’s delivery expert knocks on their door. If there’s ever a topic that can get the attention of writers and editors who are perpetually on deadline (not to mention developers), it is pizza.

Personally, I see this as a generally positive thing: I like being able to track items from the time I order them until they reach their ultimate destination. As an end-customer, there’s a lot of benefit, particularly when something goes wrong. Let’s see: that book left Amazon’s warehouse in Kentucky on Tuesday. But my package from Discovery Store mysteriously never seemed to get into the system; a phone call to the company’s customer service department saved that holiday present at the last moment.

Certainly, plenty can go wrong at the human end of the supply chain. Real example: I knew someone whose ill luck graced him with a telephone number one digit off from the local pizza joint. Imagine all those late-night drunken phone calls! Since he was in college at the time, my friend and his roommates solved the problem creatively: they’d dutifully take the order, wait 30 minutes, call the real pizza place, and double the order. So if you ordered one 14″ cheese pizza, you’d get two pizzas… a half hour later than expected. The Domino’s project staff may not have had my buddy in mind when they came up with their Pizza Tracker… but who knows?

There Sure Is Something Familiar About That Bowling Ball

…To which a terrified Don replies, “Oh my God! That bowling ball! It’s my wife!”—with apologies to the J. Geils Band

My more serious response to the announcement (why yes, I can have those) is that companies don’t necessarily take into account how much visibility their tracking systems give to the outside world. Maybe they don’t care about it… but it certainly can have the opposite effect from the company’s intent of building customer loyalty.

There has been much barking at UPS, here at the Schindler bitranch, because of these tracking systems. In my experience, they can give me just a little too clear view into the way the package delivery companies work. If I order an item from southern California on the cheapest 3-day UPS delivery, for example, I can see that my vitamins arrived in Phoenix on Tuesday at 4am… and just sat there for a day. I said the package should arrive in three days, and by golly I’ll get it in three days, even if it’s here in two.

Without a tracking system, I was at the mercy of their delivery/pricing algorithms… and now, with it, I can see just how little my business matters to them. Sure, I could have paid more for guaranteed delivery, but I know it’s only an 8-hour drive (or 6, if the cops aren’t watching), so logically it shouldn’t take more than a day or two for the delivery. But does UPS give me a way to flag them and say, “Yo! Where’s my box?” Of course not.

So I see this tracking system as a supply chain issue, with primary benefits for the company. Aside from building customer loyalty (when it works, which is most of the time), it also creates additional data for intelligent data mining. For example, which dispatch routes are the most efficient? Is it faster to send the delivery guys on Highway 101 or tell them to take the back streets? Which people are most efficient at their jobs?

My colleague Scott Berinato, however, sees it as a matter of employee metrics: tracking the minimum-wage employees (and their speed at pizza delivery) more than serving the customer who, he believes, isn’t so much interested in where the pizza is as much as why it isn’t here yet. It’s a privacy and cogs-in-a-wheel issue for him… but then, I don’t know if he’s ever managed minimum wage people. The dude making the pizza is under the boss’ eye; why shouldn’t the pizza delivery person be watched, too? At one job early in my career, I had the ::cough:: joy of supervising 26 minimum-wage workers, and it is generous to say that they were not motivated employees. If my employees could escape for a couple of hours without me noticing, they would. If I could have put an RFID chip on their market research clipboards that would have let me know when those two flunkies wasted two hours in the bar… I would have done so, because they were stealing two hours of work from me. That’s not a matter of treating people like human beings; it’s an issue of making sure that the people you pay to work for you are actually working.