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February 19, 2005

Coffee Time

Every morning on the way to work I walk through a major business complex, and on the right hand side, just next to the building entrance, there's a coffee shop. It belongs to a Japanese chain, not Starbucks or Tulley's - those are across the street and down a ways. Almost every morning, unless I'm uncharacteristicly late, I stop have have a coffee and muffin or some pastry. It's a welcome break, and gives me the chance to spend ten or fifteen minutes just thinking. It has become part of my morning ritual. So much so that I tend to get frustrated and uneasy if I don't have a glass of their iced coffee first thing in the morning.

On thing I've noticed is the big changes that coffee shop chains have made in their operations over the past ten to twenty years. They have really learned how to merchandise the coffee drinking experience - at least the successful survivors have while the others have fallen by the wayside. For example, they've learned the critical importance of location. Not just location, but orientation and how it plays to human behavior. They place and layout their shops to draw people in.


This particular shop, the one I visit every weekday morning, is located right next to the main building entrance. Most people walk down the sidewalk in front of the shop and then make the right turn to enter the building. The shop layout features lots of glass, and doorways that encourage people to zip in and out - almost as if they were taking a short cut. The glass gives a feeling of openness and transparency rather than acting as a barrier. And the shop is always bright and well lit.


The area right in front of the building features a shallow decorative pool and fountain, which while it looks great forces people to walk down the sidewalks in front of the shops. You might even think that it was deliberately planned that way... It's good news for the coffee shop. People walking towards the building main entrance in the direction of the green arrow have this view-


While people that take the other path (red arrow) see this view just before they reach the main entrance-


In the morning some of the customers, like me, want to sit down, relax, and enjoy their coffee at their leisure. But a lot of customers just want to pop in, buy their coffee, and then go on to the office as smoothly and easily as possible. This shop layout obviously has both sets of customers in mind. Lots of chairs and tables situated in small groups or clusters. Yet it provides a clear, open, quick path for the drop in customer that just wants their coffee to take out. I've never taken a talley, but my guess is that more than half of the daily sales are take out - perhaps even more.


Another major design attribute is the choice of colors. Ten years ago all the coffee shops here had white or light cream colored walls, and all the tables had table cloths. At least they started off that way. But, because smoking is still allowed in public places, and a huge percentage of the men and women smoke, the coffee shop walls would quick take on a dingy, nicotine color. Obviously no one ever made the connection between what the smoke was doing to the walls, and the damage it was doing to their lungs. Some coffee shops, like Starbucks, ban smoking inside the building entirely - but provide tables and chairs just outside. Others, Tulleys Japan specifically, have separate smoking areas that are actually walled off much like a fish bowl. In this particular coffee shop, only the counter right at the very front of the shop is labeled "No-Smoking". Luckily most of the smokers tend to sit towards the rear of the shop leaving the front part of the shop free for non-smokers to enjoy. And to aleviate the wall discoloration problem, they picked paint and wallpaper whose color and tint comes pretty close to matching, or complementing, the color of nicotine. It sounds odd, but in actual practice it seems to work quite well.


They've gone to great lengths to give the shop a homey, warm, wood feeling.


Even down to adding table lamps and plants that you would normally find in a living room, or perhaps an upscale library.


Much like the traditional Japanese dividers used in tatami rooms, this coffee shop uses low wooden dividers capped with a short panel of glass. Of course everyone can still see and hear everything that's going on. But it gives the illusion of privacy, and that's really all that's important.


Somewhere along the way, I think about five to eight years ago, the coffee shops switched over to self-service. It makes a lot of sense, cuts down on their overhead - if not their pricing, and seems to work out well. There are times when the staff gets too busy with the crush of customers, to the point that dirty cups and trays stack up filling the return shelves. But that never lasts very long. The customers seem to come in waves, probably driven by the arrival schedules of commuter trains at the station right across the street.


What are the primary attributes?

  • Clean
  • Efficient
  • Convienent
  • Comfortable
  • Easy
  • Light
  • Warm
  • Value

Somehow they managed to figure out that they are in the 'experience' business. Anyone can sell a cup of hot flavored water. The winners in the game are those that provide the best experience for the customer's money, not necessarily the best coffee. And, for the most part, the price is not a major determining factor.

February 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3)

February 16, 2005

More on The Box

I was asked about a simple graphic I posted sometime ago that tried to illustrate my view of "Thinking outside the box." So, I thought I would take another stab at it.

Everyone knows the funny definition of an optimist and a pessimist. An optimist looks at a glass of water and decides it's half full, while the pessimist looks at the same glass and decides it's half empty.  And then there's the view I usually take, which is that the glass just isn't big enough.

The same thing is true of "thinking outside the box." Some people tend to be "think inside the box" types. They follow procedure. If it isn't in the manual, or in their past experience, then they won't try it, or can't begin to imagine it. Their motives are good. They want to contribute and be successful, as long as it doesn't involve breaking new ground.


There are also the "think outside the box" types - always challenging, never wanting to stick with the status quo. They believe that only the new and untried has significant value. That the future lies 'out there' rather than 'in here.'

There is also a third type. One that rarely gets mentioned, but exists never the less. One that believes in "thinking the box." Their life, their identity, their reason for existence gets tied up in actively preserving the status quo, in making sure the rules never get broken or even threatened.

In my particular case, this trio maps pretty closely to father (think inside the box), mother (think the box), and child (think outside the box.)

We tend to classify roles and behaviors in a binary fashion. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative, black or white. To some extent, that's a reasonable and somewhat workable approach - at least we manage to somehow survive that way. Yet in the very act of classifying things that way we make value judgments that drive decisions and behaviors. And once we 'decide' something it's very hard to change it. In fact, the origin of the word 'decide' stems from exactly that meaning:

1a. To settle conclusively all contention or uncertainty about: decide a case; decided the dispute in favor of the workers. b. To make up one's mind about: decide what to do. 2. To influence or determine the outcome of: A few votes decided the election. 3. To cause to make or reach a decision. 
INTRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To pronounce a judgment; announce a verdict. 2. To make up one's mind. 
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English deciden, from Old French decider, from Latin dcdere, to cut off, decide : d-, de- + caedere, to cut;

In the process of deciding that "thinking inside the box" is right, we automatically classify "thinking outside the box" as wrong. And, we cut off that alternative, that approach, even though we may find ourselves in desperate need of it sometime in the future when we are facing different circumstances. The world around us is constantly changing, mutating, and evolving. Tomorrow's challenges will, in all likelihood, be completely different from the ones that preoccupy our every waking moment at this point in our life.

All the roles, all three of them, are valid and useful - depending on the situation we find ourselves in. We should strive to develop each one of the roles within ourselves, and within our organizations.


February 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cultural Vertigo

All is not what it seems. It seldom is. What we think we experience is often very, very far from what is actually taking place in the real world around us.

Physical Vertigo:

Every workday morning, I have a ten minute walk from the bus stop at the local train station over to my office. The buildings in the area are connected by a series of walkways built at the second floor level. The owner of each building is responsible for the walkway in front of their building, and each of them had their architect design their section of the walkway to match their building. Taken individually, the result is quite beautiful, and there is definitely a sense of harmony between the buildings and their associated walkways.

Unfortunately, since each of the buildings has a different design, their walkway designs are also very different. As a result, when you actually use the walkways for their intended purpose - i.e. walking through the complex - the experience is almost jarring. So much so, that every morning on the way to the office, I experience a brief moment of vertigo. Logically I know what's going on - it's totally predictable. Yet, at a gut level there is nothing I can do to control it or avoid the experience short of finding another path to walk to the office.

Here's what happens-


In the morning I walk along the walkway in the direction of the bottom arrow. Where the two walkways join, I have to make a slight turn to the left, take a step or two, then immediately turn back to my right, negotiate the curve, and proceed forward. That might be okay if it wasn't for the fact that the architects selected very different tiles, and had them laid in different directions. So as I transition from one walkway to the next, my eyes are drawn by the mismatched tile patterns, and for an instant I loose all physical orientation. It's a minor irritation. Most people probably aren't even aware of it at a concious level. If it was any more significant, I would stop taking that path. I probably notice it because I am prone to motion sickness.

In the evening, on my way back home, I take the curved turn (to your left in the diagram) and don't experience any vertigo or disorientation at all.

Cultural Vertigo:

Every few months my wife and I treat ourselves to brunch at a local hotel. The food is excellent, the service is superb, the staff knows us well and greets us by name, and the setting is perfect down to the last detail. We have always had a great time, and look forward to the next occasion.

Last Sunday we went over to the hotel to enjoy brunch, but it just wasn't the same. I felt totally uncomfortable, uneasy, irritated. I felt my blood pressure rising. The food was great, as usual. The staff was helpful and attentive. I knew something was wrong - my body kept trying to tell me something was wrong - but I just couldn't figure out what it was. Normally I would just brush it off - forget about it, but this had me worried. Our infrequent brunch treats mean a lot to us, and I didn't want to lose that. The rest of the day I kept replaying the brunch back, over and over again, in my head - trying to figure out the puzzle. What was wrong?

It turns out that it was my parents. My parents? How could that be? They weren't there that Sunday morning - it was a physical impossibility since both of them are long since dead. But although they weren't there physically, they were definitely there emotionally.

It turns out that there was a tour group from another country also enjoying the buffet. Families, lots of them with young children. Since we're not that far from Tokyo Disneyland, the hotels in our area often host tour groups. And this particular group was definitely enjoying a lot of new experiences. What my eyes were seeing, but my brain wasn't conciously aware of in the moment, was their child like behavior. Stirring their coffee with a knife. Talking with food in their mouths - and having some of it fall on their shirt. Pouring half a bowl of sugar onto their cereal. Playing games with their food...

There was absolutely nothing wrong with their behavior. They didn't make a mess, spill things on the floor, or disturb the other patrons. But, in my mind's ear, sotto voice, my parents were talking to my subconcious saying "behave yourself", "sit up straight", "that's too much salt", "don't play with your food" ... And, obviously, my subconcious and my body were listening to everything my parents had to say. For a few hours on Sunday morning, I was a little kid again being lectured by my parents, and I didn't like it one little bit.

More importantly, if I hadn't been taught to recognize when things like this occur, I might have let the experience taint our favorite brunch treat, or have it spoil the rest of the day, or worse yet, I might have blamed my bad experience on the visiting tour group. The next time it happens, if it ever happens again, at least I'll know what's going on. I can cut to the chase - put my parents out of my head, or take some other action to keep from ruining our pleasure.

February 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 02, 2005

Personal Space Paradox


“If you're down and confused
  And you don't remember who you're talking to
  Concentration slips away
  Cause your baby is so far away
  . . .
  Well there's a rose in the fisted glove
  And eagle flies with the dove
  And if you can't be with the one you love honey
  Love the one you're with”

Love the One You're With
Stephen Stills

It’s a real conundrum. Today we can chat instantaneously across the globe, but most of us don’t know our neighbor’s names. We send email's to co-workers in a cube just 20 feet away. Time, space, and distance have taken on totally new meanings and definitions.

Physically I’m a ‘big dog’ – just under 2 meters tall (6’7”). You would think that I would be hard to miss. Yet several times a week, in spite of my best efforts, people on the street literally run right into me. Sometimes this happens even when I’m standing completely still – say, waiting for the bus or a train.

Why? What’s going on? It’s not like I’m a ninja or ghost, or that I’m trying to hide.

The plain and simple truth is that while I am there, the people that run into me aren’t.  Their bodies are. But their minds and their attention isn’t. They are totally focused on their cell phone – living in that world for the moment – totally engrossed in that conversation, or reading an email, or playing a game. It’s their reality, and the physical world has all but completely disappeared from their consciousness. Then, suddenly, they are jolted back into this world when they bump headlong into me. Funny thing is, they are almost always shocked, and sometimes angry at me for disturbing them.

Think I’m joking? Take the time to watch a few strangers talking on the cell phone. It won’t be long before you see that some of them are talking with their hands, waving them in the air, showing their emotions clearly on their faces, acting just as if the person they were talking to was standing right in front of them. At that moment they are occupying a totally different world – a different space/time continuum. Who are they with? The person on the other end of the phone call – not with you. You don’t even exist for them, at least not for the time being. 

February 2, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1)