Benchmarking the Lean principles at Subway

When starting out on your lean journey, it can be hard to visualise what “best practice” may look like and be able to share that vision with your team. There isn’t always the opportunity to visit other companies like yours in the same industry. We need to be creative in where we source our ideas from. A great place to see key lean principles is at your local Subway; their layout and processes exemplify many of the lean principles we are looking to develop in your company. They include clearly defining customer expectations, defining product flow and being agile with customer demands.

many lean principles are used at Subway

Defining Customer Expectations

Even if you have never walked into a Subway before, you have a pretty good idea of what they are offering; freshly made sandwiches are in their advertising and branding across the store. If you are looking for something else you know you have come to the wrong place. Each sandwich is made to a customer demand and you can chose from two predetermined sizes; 6” or 12”.

At the store level, first time customers are guided through the sandwich making process. The “pay here” location is clearly marked. We can see where the process (and the queue) begins.  Each station is clearly marked with the choices at each step. There is a decal on the glass with photos of the product range. Firstly choose the type of bread you’d like; here are the choices – white, wholemeal, flat bread and so on. Here are the choices of meats; ham, tuna, chicken and so on. And these offerings are clearly defines at each station.

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Lean Principles: Subway Process Flow

The first thing I noticed when I entered a Subway for the first time was the single counter, with a clearly marked in and out. Customers could easily figure out where to go and how the process is going to work. Each station is arranged in a logical order; bread, meats, cheese, salads and condiments. Our options at each station are shown on the glass.

When the store is busy, three our four sandwich makers are on the process line. When it’s quiet, there is only one sandwich maker, but the layout and process still works. Handover points occur between the meat and salad sections, so your sandwich is passed along; the sandwich maker then returns to the start of the process and serves he next customer. This creates smaller loops for each operator and reduces the cross over and moving behind others.

During the lunch peak, the ingredient bins are easily changed over when something runs out. Pre-filled bins are in the fridge out the back and replenishment is a simple process. The ingredient bins are in two sizes, where two small ones are the same size as one larger one. The larger ones hold the most popular ingredients like lettuce and ham. Some of the ingredients are set out in pre-prepared serving sizes; one lot for a 6” sub, two lots for a 12” sub. Even when we arrive at the end of the line and prepare to pay, the person at the register places our wrapped sandwich into a bag, already loaded with a serviette. You aren’t asked if you;d like a serviette, they are already in the bag our sandwich is placed in. We are then given our customised sandwich.

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Being Agile

Subway has the customised sandwich process in the bag! Don’t want jalapeno? Then ask to leave them out. At each station, the customer can decide which items to include or leave out. Any items that incur an extra cost are displayed on the back wall. Want your sandwiches grilled? Okay! It will get pulled off the line, placed into the grill (at a set temperature with a timer). You get to step back and wait, while the next sandwich is run down the process line. When your sandwich is ready, it returns to the next point in the process and you continue along as before.

Lessons to Learn From Subway

  • Clearly defining customer exceptions helps both the customer and you; “Helping the customer help you” is one of the most under utilised principles of Lean (and customer service!)
  • Use your layout to help the customer and operators; defined work stations, handover points and a process that can work with one or more people
  • Consider how each process supply is replenished; use modular supply containers and prepared as mani items as possible

You can now look at your next visit to a Subway with your “lean glasses” on and see their lean principles at work, and see it working for both the customer and team members. Clearly setting customer expectations, having a simple process flow an building in agility can lead to a successful process for all.

Robert Chittenden

Author: Robert Chittenden

Robert Chittenden is a Senior Lean Consultant at TXM Lean Solutions