About Process Control (or, "Herding Hung-over, Grumpy, Horny, Undergrad Gerbils")

My picture nameGreetings. I have just been through one of the most painful experiences of my life and, since I lack a uterus and therefore will never have to experience childbirth, I think there's a fair chance it will remain in the Top 3 forever. After several thousand years of university, I am starting my very last semester, ever, honestly, and I decided to work at the campus bookstore for 'rush week' to make a little extra spending cash. The bookstore employs the humourous euphemism 'rush week' to describe what happens when upwards of 18,000 students try to cram into a smallish room to buy textbooks for outrageous amounts of money. They say you can't put a price on education, but the university bookstore is certainly going to try.

'Rush' is used in the same sense as 'rush hour', in the sense of nobody going anywhere and everybody wanting to impale their fellow man on a sharp, rusty object. Rush week is pretty well equivalent in terms of relaxation to riding through New York Monday morning traffic with someone who has given up checking his blind spots for Lent and is facing backwards and driving with his feet, while someone in the back seat serenades his pet lobster with Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik played on an air-raid siren. Add to this that many of the people involved are first-year students away from home for the first time, and so are all hung-over and horny (not necessarily in that order). Clearly, you can see the need here for some sort of extremely tight, logical process control to process that many hot, grumpy, horny customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. We didn't get it.

The process in years past involved checking your bags on the floor above, coming down the back staircase, purchasing your books, going out the front door and going back upstairs to retrieve your book bag. It was a time-consuming process, but it enjoyed the benefits of security and of having some sort of control over the influx of people into the store, thus making the process fairly efficient. This year they decided to do something different. They decided to have everyone smash their book bags onto shelves in a tiny room opposite the front door, walk in and purchase their books and then try to retrieve their bags from among the 500 hundred others in what rapidly became a disordered pile. It was more efficient, in a way, but by that logic it would be more efficient to burn the house down than to renovate, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

It was the job of my partner and I to make this process function as well as it could, and it gave me cause to think a lot about time-management, efficiency and process control, and how it would be nice to have some. It seems to me that when dealing with any large group of people, especially hung-over, grumpy, horny undergrads, that signage is very important, so we put some up. We had a sign in front of the door welcoming people to the bookstore. It originally didn't tell them which side was in and which was out. That was our job. We updated the sign to clearly indicate that they should enter on the left and exit on the right, with a yellow rope dividing the two. The average student had the following reaction: They would start in, see the sign, jump back to contemplate the sign for some time and then carefully and deliberately proceed in the out side, only to have a delayed-reaction sort of spasm which would cause them to back out of the doorway and force their way in through the crowd of people coming out the in side. It was a dynamic experience. Process control at work.

We also put up a sign in big black letters on a huge piece of pink bristle board that said Bookstore, Mandatory Book Drop and put it up right outside the little shelf room. Nobody saw the sign. We considered putting flashing Christmas lights around the sign, but I honestly don't think it would have made any difference. It was like the sign did not exist. Most people looked at the sign, but almost nobody took it in. When we informed them that they'd have to leave their bags in the room next to the sign, many people first protested that they weren't planning to steal anything and then reacted with some amazement when they saw the big pink Bookstore, Mandatory Book Drop sign. This being Canada, many people apologized, but that wasn't a shock. I once apologised to a desk after I bumped into it. Never mind, the last two weeks gave me a chance to connect with my more aggressive emotions.

So, using this most efficient system of having nobody know what was going on and everybody bumping into each other and everybody horny, we proceeded through rush week. We discovered fairly quickly that one major block to efficient process control and effective time management was that much of the public are raging dough-heads. Oh, I know you're smart and I'm smart and most of the people we know are smart, as individuals, but when thrust into a group setting, the herd mentality takes over and many people would register lower on a cat-scan than a gerbil. Anyone who has worked retail knows what I'm talking about. Scientists refer to this as S.A.M.A. Syndrome, S.A.M.A. Standing for 'Stunned As Me Arse!'

So, we proceeded as best we could to herd the horny gerbils through the store, but we had some memorable breakdowns of process control. One first-year student tried to come in the store and I stopped him saying that he'd have to put his bag in the bag drop. He visually located the big pink sign that said Bookstore, Mandatory Book Drop, stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment, turned around to acknowledge my instruction with a curt nod and then walked over and proceeded to drop his bag in a huge green recycling bin. Ah, the leaders of tomorrow. They moved the bin after that, which I thought was too bad.

One young man asked me in the book room where his course books were. Now, this actually seemed, to me, to be a fairly efficiently organised system: the books were arranged by department, course number and section. Thousands and thousands of books were organized in this quick, easy-to-understand system. He said he didn't know what course it was for, or what the book was called, but he said it was 'thin and brown.' I told him it was on order.

We had enormous numbers of people watch as we instructed those ahead of them to drop their bags in the bag drop and then walk up and ask if they had to check their bags. To be fair, we were letting women with small purses through, on the logic that it's nearly impossible to stuff anything valuable in there or to separate a woman from her purse, but many of these people were asking to enter with bags large enough to hold a viking.

Today, a woman walked up, bent over to fetch something out of her bag, nearly jamming her whole face in in the process, and asked me in an irritated tone if they were supposed to check their bags. I said, yes, they were, in the little room across the hall. She replied, with tremendous irritation, and with her head still stuck in the bag, 'I don't see any room.' She then stood up to better appraise the situation, walked into the opposite corner, where there was clearly nothing but wall and nearly screeched, 'I don't see any room!!' I gestured frantically behind her, towards the room next to the big pink sign that said Bookstore, Mandatory Book Drop and she stormed inside in a huff.

It was then that I conceived of the ultimate tool for efficient crowd control, but they wouldn't give us rifles.

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A quick note on comments: I haven't been receiving many responses so far to my posts. Doug says that people seem to be reading and enjoying my columns, but that most people leave comments in order to give people help and advice, and that people probably see me as beyond help. (Doug wounds me sometimes, he really does.) Let's try something new this week: If anyone has any ideas about how to improve the bookstore process, please comment them here. They'll be very much appreciated and I'll send the best ones along to the manager.

Steve Sharam
www.whenrealityknocks.com

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"I once apologised to a desk

"I once apologised to a desk after I bumped into it" You, too? :-)

I think the last person was looking for her glasses...

Rush week

Hi Steve.

I really enjoyed your posts. I never worked in the bookstore, but I was a lab tech for several years and often got drafted to work during registration to 'fix computers'. Laying cables and trying to get students not to pull plugs and kick the cables... It sounds a lot like students have not changed much.

No clue how to improve your current process - maybe have an actual bag check? Someone mans a table/room/booth and students get a token so that they can redeem their bags? At least then you could have someone specifically to ride herd on these bag-crazed, sleep-deprived wonders of tomorrow.

In the lab we had a sign that read - "Bag = No Entry". And another that said "Drop bags HERE!" with an arrow. There seems to be some sort of law, the more words on a sign, the less people will read them.

Maybe put up more signs? ;)
Rebecca

Probably impossible

When these horny gerbils are headed to the bookstore, the one thought in their tiny brains is "go to bookstore and buy books," not "get near bookstore and follow directions."

If a dedicated bag drop area were inside the bookstore, they might follow along better. Enter bookstore, drop bag, move through monitored doorway/turnstile to go buy books. Still stuck with a monitor, but it's easier on the gerbils than going outside. Then the bookstore checkout lanes lead people right back out to the book drop to grab their gear and go.

But I'm sure nobody's willing to remodel the bookstore just to make this work.

-- flexiblefine

Bookstore?

The university has a local address for every student, provided when they registered, right? Why march them through the bookstore at all? Put a dozen kids in a dozen pick up trucks and deliver the darned things. Do away with the bookstore. When you register for a course, you indicate your preference: new book, used (if available), none.

Or, in an even more radical move, set up an affiliate deal with Amazon. When a student clicks through to Amazon from the university web site, the 'bookstore' gets a comission on the sale.

This is about the most

This is about the most intelligent idea I've heard regarding university bookstores. I never entered the bookstore during the last three years of my education (at two different universities). Everything I needed was either borrowed from others or purchased online.

Rather than looking for ways to get more students into the bookstore (which is what both stores were trying to do), they could have gotten my money by making the process a no-brainer. Heck, I would have even paid the premium for new books if it meant a guarantee that the right book/edition got delivered directly to me.

My last university had instituted a watered-down version of this the last year I was there. At registration, you could purchase your books and have them mailed to you before classes began. But you had to request this option (and know it was available). It wasn't promoted or actively offered, and only new books were available through the program- no used copies.

Couple of mistakes...

I think you made two mistakes, I mean besides even agreeing to work during "rush week". Mistake one: using the color pink around any sort of male college student. Mistake two: using the word "mandatory" on a pink sign that any sort of male college student is meant to take seriously.

I'm not really sure what phrase might have helped, besides "Free beer for your book bag", but bright green or red might have been a better choice. You know, the whole stop and go thing. :)

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With work it's best to just start.