THE READER
January
2007

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Operations News

Technology at Your Co-op

by Dan Frost, Assistant Store Manager, Operations

A new year should be about change, progress and painstaking adherence to goals, right? I won’t disappoint.

Changes

A lot has changed in ‘Operations’ since I last visited this space. Let me put out a few highlights before I get started on more exciting things.

    • I have a new job, similar but more intense than my last. What’s new? Read on...
    • The Point of Sale (PoS) team—the folks that manage the product data in our registers and throughout the store—has undergone a planned transition to the ‘product side’ and changed its name to Flow of Goods. As such, they no longer report to me. I’m sure they’ll be mentioned in this Operations column many times to come.
    • We are in the middle of introducing two new positions to the store that will be part of Operations. Rounders will work a regular schedule but not know where until they arrive. They will cover staffing shortages and unexpected demands. Managers on Duty will help ensure smooth operations and consistent customer service in the store at all times.
    • The Front End (including Customer Service desk staff) now joins the Operations teams. This change should help free some time on our General Manager’s plate and allow the team a bit more support.

So just after you figured out what Operations meant, we changed it. Here’s the cheat sheet: Managers on Duty, Rounders, Cashiers and Customer Service, Maintenance, IT and me.

The title of this column promised some technobabble and I know you’re all itching for the kind of excitement only geeks can provide, but I’m going to take a moment to highlight one more significant transition.

New Front End Manager

Becca Schill is stepping down from her second term in one of the more demanding jobs at the Co-op. Cashiers are the staff members you, our loyal owners, are guaranteed to interact with every time you shop. Keeping this team happy and ready to serve, especially given the potential monotony and intensity of the job, is no easy task, but Becca truly excelled at it. Becca isn’t leaving the Co-op; she’ll work a much-needed more flexible schedule in the Finance department. During the process of hiring her replacement I got to hear first-hand how much her team appreciates her skill and style. Thank you, Becca.

Our new Front End Manager comes to us from right down the street. Kristin Esselstrom was the assistant store manager at the our neighborhood St. Vincent De Paul thrift store. We’re thankful to have her join us and hope you’ll extend a warm welcome if you luck through her line.

Wizardry

Guess how many workstations—not servers or registers, but places for staff to do work—your little-ol’ corner market has? I’ll give you a minute... rope you into some important overview.

I’m proud of the technology we use at the Co-op and I’m not afraid to say so. There. Sure, even I will admit there are plenty of times when a pencil or a quick conversation will not only be more enjoyable, but more efficient as well. I hope we rarely, if ever, allow a computer to answer your phone calls, for instance. But you are still reading and you came here for gizmos so let me oblige. I’m going to present a laundry list of tech you probably haven’t noticed and a bit of detail on some you probably have.

To make things a bit more interesting and relevant to you the owner, I’m going to touch on how each of the technologies listed below fits into, is ready for, or supports our goal to open another retail site. You voted for us to pursue one specific site (Monroe St.) and that didn’t work out. That vote, combined with our survey of your opinion and your monitoring of our efforts for the last few years, has given us clear indication that you want us to expand somewhere. Our constant study of your business indicates we’d do well to give you—and more like you—another full service supplier of high quality fuel... Anyway, it’s the technology team’s job to be ready to support an expansion whether it is down the street or downtown. Let me share where we’ve gotten to in our preparations.

Infrastructure

We are a multi-platform house. Diversity is good. Our departmental and administrative staff almost exclusively uses Macintosh computers. Our Finance, HR and a few other computers are Windows-based. We have one Linux workstation. In all we have about forty workstations in our two locations (the store and Off-site Kitchen). These workstations are supported by a closet full of servers and an infrastructure that allows workers to login to virtually any computer to do their work. Most servers employ some form of redundancy to ensure they are always available and our data is backed up daily and sometimes hourly. Finally, our two sites are networked together making shared resources accessible to all and communication much simpler. We access file servers and databases, use internal web resources and even route phone calls over our private inter-site network.

Our staff’s ability to login anywhere to securely see their own work environment combined with our ability to use resources from and communicate between multiple buildings is paramount to opening another retail site. We are working at speeding the communication channel between our sites, but the practice we’ve gained by supporting the Kitchen and our administrative offices in addition to our retail has been invaluable.

Scanning and data maintenance

Obviously we scan your items at checkout. The register system we use now is actually our third attempt. The first was before my time, then we started scanning for good about eight years ago or so using a system meant for clothing stores! What we use now has been in place since just before our move to our current location. What is not so obvious is how much development our IT team has done over the years making a system that meets the specific needs of a shopper owned cooperative focused on natural foods.

Even today, as technology diversifies and improves, co-ops have a difficult time finding register systems that integrate well with the many and various ownership structures of food co-ops. We have found that this integration is difficult to do well with off-the-shelf software. For better or worse, we don’t benefit from a corporate headquarters in this country or any other. Depending on your perspective, we have to (or get to) seek solutions to common business problems ourselves and with the cooperation of our peers at other locally owned co-ops.

Many years ago we addressed our needs with an entirely homebrewed ‘back end’ database system that we use to manage product and owner data. Every shelf tag, most product signs, most product labels and the data you see in our registers and scales ultimately comes from a system we wrote and maintain in house. We call this tool WillyWorld. Our system does show its shortcomings to us regularly, but I believe we’d be hard pressed to work as efficiently as we do now without it.

WillyWorld would be able to be used to support a second retail site. We already use it extensively from the Kitchen. Having one set of data recording how much flour costs—whether we sell it directly to you or our Bakery uses it to make some of their scrumptious new goodness—is essential to an efficient workflow. Nevertheless, we are looking to dramatically improve upon or even replace this tool with one more professionally written and easier to maintain or possibly—though we still haven’t found anything close—an off-the-shelf software package.

Documentation

We’ve installed a wiki on our internal network. In fact it is 16 months old as I write this. For those who aren’t familiar, a wiki is a software tool designed to make web publishing accessible to the rest of us. End-user editable pages, document revision histories, fast searches and consistent design all combine to form a perfect place to house our internal documentation. The idea is to find a way to allow staff to help document the way we do things that is consistent across authors and quickly accessible to others.

This effort is probably the most tangible way we as an entire staff are preparing for smoothly opening another store. Obviously, any new staff we might hire to support an expansion would need clear documentation to supplement hands-on training. For years, this has consisted of paper manuals for each department. These manuals have not always been consistent, and maintaining them has always been a challenge. A wiki seems to have been the answer. First, it being a singular entity puts a huge focus on it. We’ve found that staff—not just us managers—want to help record proper procedure or update existing documentation. Institutional knowledge is being maintained. We’ve seen a drop off in one-time how-to explanations; instead we will record how to do something in the wiki then use it in addressing the original how-to question. Of course, the wiki is available in both our sites and would easily be available to the next.

Communication

We encourage face-to-face direct communication but that is not always possible and not always appropriate. Then there is our digital, multi-site phone, paging, and intercom system-we upgraded it a couple years ago to be able to interface with multiple sites easily. We use e-mail extensively—a fast growing number of our staff have e-mail (well over half, or about 80 people). We use internal list-serves a bit. But the real fun is in our communications logs.

We have always used paper notebooks to host discussion among staff members on the issues of the day. They sit on our break tables and departmental receiving desks and come with only two rules: sign and date your entry. Open discussion is perhaps the core of the participatory style of managing this business we’ve held so dear for so long. We are all encouraged to contribute to solutions or highlight problems or to give opinions on others proposals without fear of retribution.

A particular challenge we’ve noticed in already having two physical locations is that unified discussion of the kind we’d always been used to is very challenging. We cross-post announcements and the like in the (two!) ‘all worker logs’—the one at the Kitchen and the one in the store, but comments and whole discussions are simply lost to those in the ‘other’ building. Having worked at the Co-op for over 13 years now, I can tell you that the log is not nearly as lively as it once was and that saddens me. I don’t think it is entirely expansion to two sites that’s done it, but we feel it’s time for revitalization of our discussion forum.

So, we’ve build an on-line discussion forum accessible only to staff and only from within our network. It is being tested and transitioned to as you read this. Clearly, if we succeed in opening another site we’ll need a ways of keeping our staff unified. We hope this will help.

Other tools

We use many other technologies here. We have a problem-tracking system to help coordinate and record solutions to everyday or uncommon problems; we have electronic ordering systems that make efficient use of our time; we automate many data maintenance tasks at night; monitor our refrigeration system extensively; audit our pricing accuracy and even play music for you in the store—all in ways that weren’t possible that long ago. But I’ve held true to form and written more than most will read. I hope the window into our world has been interesting, at least. If I’ve stirred insight or inquiry, please let me know:

Job opening

Oh, and by the way. A special message to anyone that made it this far: We’ll be hiring in IT for an experienced developer/admin soon. Watch for the official postings or send us your info early. It’s a great job, particularly to those drawn to solving as well as doing.