I had a great time presenting a workshop at the McGill Business Conference on Sustainability this Saturday and got some really good questions and comments.

One was about Starbucks and why it started out feeling so alive and authentic and doesn’t anymore, for anyone involved.

The person who raised the question said that when she started working there, the baristas had thorough training and were able to make coffee drinks to order. More recently, coffee making has been automated and the baristas seem to receive less training, and so they are less able to interact knowledgeably with customers. The result has been a loss of the full sense of Mastery, in which the employee is able to bring some unique part of themselves to their work. This seems to be the first part of the problem.

But that also seems to be a symptom of a bigger issue. In my talk, I pointed out that the infrastructure that supports the connection between employees and customers – that allows life to flow from one to the other – is the only part of the organization that is lifeless. Life resides with the employees and with the customers. What I see happening in many large (and even not-so-large) companies is that the conversation between employees and customers becomes automated in the interest of control and predictability. In these cases, it’s the lifeless central infrastructure that’s talking to the customers. This is why you get the sense that you’re talking to a machine, even if you’re actually talking to a human being. And this kind of experience is dehumanizing for both employee and customer. In addition to feeling dissatisfying, letting the machine do the talking also limits evolution and innovation, both of which rely on the spark of life that only the human spirit can provide.

In contrast, think about the examples of Southwest Airlines and Apple. The connection between living employees and living customers is retained, even though some parts of that conversation are necessarily automated. Along the same lines, another workshop participant described a trend he noticed in New York on a recent trip. On advertising billboards, companies are no longer listing their www.companyname.com address. Instead, they’re listing the company’s Facebook address. As long as the conversation that happens there is between real human beings, this is a fantastic trend in the right direction.

I worked for several years with a chain of coffee shops in Montreal, helping them craft a manifesto and a subsequent set of strategies and actions. Within their manifesto, they said, “We consider carefully what we automate and at what cost we gain efficiency and speed.” This may be be a helpful thought for Starbucks — and so many others — to consider.

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