The food truck business is certainly taking off in every major city in America. But there’s a curious lesson to learn from them about developing policies and procedures for your business.
You might think that I’m going to rave about well-defined business processes for inventory management, food prep, and customer service. But instead, this New York Times article explains what might be an unexpected problem for food trucks:
Despite the inherent attractiveness of cute trucks and clever food options, the business stinks. There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on.
It’s easy to just blame government incompetence for these problems. But as we’ve noted before, business process improvement in bureaucracies is often about incentives. Indeed, the editorial continues:
Economically speaking, the problem is a standard one, known as the J-curve, which represents a downslope on a graph followed by a steep rise. Some sensible changes to the current food-vendor system may have long-term benefits for everyone, but the immediate impact could spell short-term losses for those who now profit from the system. A small group of New Yorkers — particularly owners of [mandatory food truck cleaning] commissaries and physical restaurants — are highly motivated to lobby politicians not to change things. And most of the potential beneficiaries don’t realize they’re missing out. Many of the rest of us would love to have more varied food trucks, but we don’t care enough to pressure the City Council.
What’s the lesson for business process improvement in your probably-not-a-food-truck business?
First, the power of the J-curve. Although this is a concept that is pretty widely applied to a ton of phenomena, it’s still important to consider. In summary: for many complex systems, things will get worse before they get better. That is, they follow the shape of the letter “J.”
Second, always go back to incentives. People will gravitate toward whatever is easiest or has the most immediate benefit, especially if this doesn’t require them to change.
Finally, the purpose of business processes and business policies is to make business work, not to slow it down. If your company rules prevent people from being productive at work, they may be too domineering. Scale them back.
And while you’re at it, head outside for a lunch “al fresco.” If anybody is breaking tradition and pursuing innovation, it’s the people creating new cuisines for sale in your very own parking lot.