maybe buy more waffle irons
take an inventory of your processes and evaluate them
At the hospital that my wife and I go to for prenatal checkups, there’s a little bakery that, amongst other things, makes fresh waffles. They’re pretty cheap and tasty – I like the chocolate ones for S$2, which is a little under US$1.50. And the delicious smell is particularly hard to resist. I googled it to see what other people have written, and I’m both amused and unsurprised to discover that multiple people have found it noteworthy: “There’s a waffle place.... Your nose will lead you there. We’d always wondered why there was a queue for waffles at lunchtime – even staff join in! The waffles smell SO GOOD!” and “It has became a ritual during a visit”.
Both of those anecdotes say it all. Nervous parents-to-be are sitting around sometimes for hours going through checkups, and then when they step outside there’s this delicious smell of toasted bread, a little treat you can have for being responsible adults. The bakery has, probably inadvertently, stumbled into a sticky behavioral loop with its customers. This is, in my opinion, the essence of what businesses do. They find product-market fit.
Now here’s what’s amusing to me: that the bakery bothers having anything else for sale at all! There’s a whole wall’s worth of comparatively oily-looking sandwiches and pastries that basically nobody is picking up. They look like they’ve been sitting there for hours. I’m pretty confident that the vast majority of revenue that this bakery makes is from the waffles. But they probably stumbled onto that outlier pattern of success halfway through, and haven’t thought or needed to modify their processes accordingly.
The waffles are being made fresh on the spot in just 6 waffle irons. Each waffle takes maybe 2-3 minutes to make. Sometimes people order multiples. Earlier today I was in a queue of about 6 people. I just wanted 1 waffle, the guy behind me ordered 6. I didn’t see anybody buy any of the donuts or buns.
It’s “strikingly obvious” to me that the entire bakery ought to pivot to basically becoming a waffle house. They should maybe invest in more waffle irons so that there isn’t a bottleneck in the waiting time. They’ll sell more waffles this way, because sometimes people will show up, see that there’s a long queue and a long waiting time (10 mins+) to get their waffle, and decide against it. (I have made this exact decision before!) They could probably also afford to raise their prices a little, I would’ve paid S$3 pretty easily, especially if the waiting time was shorter.
Realistically, I’m guessing the person who owns the bakery probably isn’t working in the shop day-to-day, and they aren’t around long enough to notice what’s happening with the waffle sales. And the people working the shop are probably part-time staff who aren’t particularly incentivized to improve the processes.
I can’t help but notice this playing out in all sorts of contexts all around me everywhere I go. When I was in Junior College in 2007, I'd often get frustrated when large crowds of students were bottlenecked when entering or leaving a lecture theatre. 15+ years ago and I still think about this. There are two sets of two doors, and yet invariably only one was opened. Agonizingly slow! I would repeatedly unlock and open the second door, and enjoy watching the stream of students double in speed. I always thought, why isn't this the norm? Why don't people habitually open both doors? It could’ve saved 5-10 minutes per lecture, and when you multiply that by hundreds of lectures a year, it could have a real impact on the students’ grades. But I guess it wasn’t anybody’s job to address that issue. Certainly when I was a student I didn’t think about raising it to the school administration, I think in large part because I didn’t trust that they would take me seriously or do anything about it.
It also occurs to me that it’s probably much easier to notice this in other people’s configurations than in my own. It’s almost definitely the case that I am myself running a “bakery” where I’m not realizing what my “waffles” are, and I spend quite a bit of time and energy on all the pastries and sandwiches that nobody is particularly interested in.
It’s a bit more complicated than that. In my case sometimes I make “pastries” because I want to, not because I’m looking to sell more product and make more money. But it’s also true that the additional income that results from slightly better product-market fit, buys me more freedom to do more of the fun, esoteric stuff that I’d enjoy doing. Regardless, it’s periodically worth just thinking through everything from scratch from time to time. What am I doing here? What’ working, what’s not working? What do I wish I did more of? What do I wish I did less of? What can I actually change?
I actually have a personal story that I can talk about here – I sort of accidentally ended up running a t-shirt business in my 20s. It started out with me simply posting mockups on Facebook because I thought they were funny. There was a wide range of ideas, ranging from philosophical jokes (“I got over my existential crisis and all I got was this t-shirt”) and meta observational stuff like “professional people-watcher” and language nerd things like “you had me at your immaculate spelling and flawless use of grammar”. But what really took off were the localized Singaporean slang t-shirts, like “knnbccb” and “eh sia la” and “uh uh siol”, which won’t make sense to an international audience. I didn’t set out to make “local lingo t-shirts”, but that’s what there was an market for, and so I doubled down on that, making more and more of such t-shirts, even asking customers for ideas.
This sort of instrumental, procedural thinking is something I’ve found very helpful and interesting to reflect on. You can see it in all sorts of domains – I caught a nice example while watching Car Masters, a Netflix reality show about a car repair and modifications workshop. “We have so much stuff, but you can't throw it away... if you look at my shelves, there's four cars in parts on those two shelves... I need all of this stuff... having less space means not only are we on top of each other all the time, but we're always waiting on something, waiting on the compressor, waiting on the lifts, we waste time waiting on tools.”
A great book I recommend reading on this topic is High Output Management, written by former Intel CEO Andy Grove. He opens by talking about the processes in a hypothetical restaurant that serves breakfast, and gets us thinking about the tradeoffs involving in production. “Your task is to find the most cost-effective way to deploy your resources— the key to optimizing all types of productive work. […] To find the right answer, you must develop a clear understanding of the trade-offs between the various factors – manpower, capacity, and inventory— and you must reduce the understanding to a quantifiable set of relationships.”
I don’t typically spend all of my time thinking about how to optimize my processes, I think that itself is suboptimal in some ways. I like to spend time daydreaming, fantasizing, exploring, finding surprising and unexpected new things. But part of how I get to do that is that I have done some optimization work on my processes in the past, and I do them periodically when it feels relevant or important.
Most people satisfice once something is good enough. And that’s quite reasonable, you could have other things going on in your life, lots of things are always competing for your attention. But from time to time– monthly or quarterly, at least annually, I think it can be incredibly lucrative to sit down and ask ourselves questions like:
What do I do?
How do I do it?
How do I know if I’m doing it well?
What do I like about doing it?
What do I dislike about doing it?
What do I wish I could do more of?
What do I wish I could do less of?
How can I do it better?
What’s not working?
How would it look if it were better?
There’s a good chance you already know how to make things better for yourself, and all you need is to just set aside a little time and space to take that knowledge and put it to work.
PS: this is part of what I walk my consulting clients through. It’s all so deliciously meta – when it comes to making money, consulting sessions are my waffles. And yet I hardly spend any time updating that process to make it more effective. Much to think about, much to do.