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Would being ranked on a 'leaderboard' change the way you work?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 8, 2011 11:54 AM

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Objective Logistics is a New Bedford start-up trying to introduce an intriguing idea to the restaurant industry — and eventually, other businesses, too.

What if waiters could see their performance relative to their co-workers every day when they checked in for work, and what if better performance meant they could nab the shifts they most wanted to work? Borrowing terminology from the world of sports, what if there were a "leaderboard" in the workplace?

"Hourly staff at a restaurant can be hard to motivate, but they can also have great energy when they are motivated," says Objective Logistics CEO Philip Beauregard, a former waiter and bartender himself. "One of the things that motivates them is that they want to name their own schedules."

Here's how it works: Objective Logistics' system, called MUSE, monitors a waiter's performance based on how well he sells. That can mean pushing the special of the day, selling bottles of wine with dinner, or encouraging big groups to order appetizers and desserts. (Eventually, the company also wants to integrate feedback from diners — after all, a waiter who foists sparkling water on a table that doesn't really want it might be driving away business.) The software grades wait staff performance on a curve: it's obviously a lot easier to gin up big checks on a Saturday night than it is Monday at 11 a.m.

The servers who rise to the top get first dibs on the shifts they want to work. That frees the restaurant manager from what Beauregard estimates is as much as eight hours a week of scheduling his wait staff. (Managers can tweak the schedule, if they want.) Beauregard, a former investment banker, and chief technology officer Matthew Grace, an ex-Oracle software developer, have been working on the concept since late 2008.

Beauregard says the software will be sold on an annual subscription basis. "We see it going beyond just restaurants, into places like hair salons, clothing stores, car dealerships, any kind of retail environment." The company is about half-way done raising a $1 million funding round, he says.

So far, the software has been tested at Not Your Average Joe's locations around the Boston area, starting in Beverly and Acton. (One of Objective Logistics' early investors was Stephen Silverstein, founder of Not Your Average Joe's.) Beauregard says he has been negotiating with other local and national restaurant operators.

At Joe's, vice president of operations Scott Flanagan says that "one or two" of the servers at his Beverly location quit because they didn't like the system. "Those were the people who were ranked down low, and the people who were performing better were getting the better shifts," he says. A future version of the software will enable servers to choose not just shifts, but also the group of tables that they serve (known as a station). "Certain stations are just better, if they include a lot of booths or they're close to the window," Flanagan says. "We now have data that shows that one station may sell $400 more food and beverages during a shift than another." A server who doesn't want to work a Friday night for personal reasons might earn about the same amount by working a Wednesday night, but getting the best station in the restaurant.

Beauregard acknowledges that the idea of making employee performance so visible — and encouraging competition as a way to control one's schedule — can be "polarizing" among servers. But, he says, "you can tell how good a waiter is by their response to the system. We had one server who was ranked #22. She'd lost her Saturday night shift. Suddenly, she was asking how she could do things better. And she started rising in the rankings, and got that shift back."

Darwinism is the newest menu item, it seems, at a dining establishment near you.

Here's a screenshot from the MUSE system:

objlog.jpg

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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