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Pattern recognition includes knowing when they aren't useful anymore.

If reading about the Mocha Shiznit didn’t cause you to unsubscribe, good news: there’s a part two.

No recipes, mind you. Your pancreas is safe this time. This time it's about pattern recognition.

During my brief day of training to be a barista I was taught a process, a pattern of behavior.

  1. Customer places order.

  2. I write order on paper cup.

  3. I set cup down on counter.

  4. I pick up a new cup and repeat for the other customer.

  5. I ring them up and they pay.

  6. I grab the cups and make the drinks.

Now, that’s a useful procedure. Keeps you accurate, makes sure the drinks are made in the order they’re placed, etc.

So I made this process into a habit, a pattern of working. I worked at a coffee kiosk at the airport, which meant that there were few customers and suddenly there were a bunch of customers. The process was useful when faced with a crowd at the counter.

But when one customer showed up, the pattern was not as useful.

A pattern works best to create memory and muscle habits to train yourself to do something so well that you don’t even have to concentrate on it after a while. But then, when you get good enough, you shouldn’t rely on the pattern. You should be good enough that you can get creative.

As I told my art students back in the day, “You first must learn the rules of art before you can break them.”

The reason is that when you understand the foundation, you know why you’re breaking the rules. There’s more purpose, and it can be repeated later instead of functioning as an accidental moment of creative genius.

So my friend showed up to the coffee kiosk during a lull, ordered the Mocha Shiznit, and watched as I wrote the complicated order on the cup. Then he watched as I set the cup down. Then he watched as I paused. Then he watched as I picked the cup back up having done nothing in the time I’d set it down until then. Then he watched as I began making the drink.

To be fair, I watched myself doing it, too, and wondered why the heck I was doing it that way. But that was the pattern, the process.

I should have recognized that the pattern wasn’t my friend at that point, because I’d humorously noticed this same problem back in 2006 and written about it on my blog, never dreaming I’d have to eat crow.

Do you want to take down your local McDonalds? Here it is: Go up to the counter and simply order one soda.

That's it. That's all it takes to bring the system to a grinding halt.

"I'd like a medium soda," I said to the young man behind the counter, wasting precious moments of my lunch break as he twirled his finger through the air above the computer register, looking for the right button to press. I already knew where this was heading from past experience. Why should today be any different?

"Do you want that for here or to go?"

Does it make a difference in this case? I'm irritated to even be asked the question because by answering it I’m validating nonsense.

"To go."

The inner peacemaker tried to remember that employees were probably trained to ask that question always. But for a solitary beverage? What different kind of packaging could I expect if I ordered it as a sit-down drink?

That's not the worst of it if this were of any proportion in the scheme of life to be connotated with the heavy word "worst."

McDonald's has institutionalized passing the buck or, in this case, the receipt. They have created an arguable "that's not my job" mentality in their workers.

You, the customer, place your order, the cashier takes it, slides the order receipt down the counter to be filled by the confused folks in the kitchen area with more beeping and blinking machines than a casino, all while the cashier takes the order of the next customer. This is for efficiency. If the order doesn’t have anything from the kitchen and no tray, though, there’s a problem.

Every time I've ordered just one drink, with the cups under the counter next to the cashier, the cashier has slid the order down the counter further from the necessary cups. Even when there were no other customers in line. This leaves me with the awkward moment of wondering how exactly to get a cup without leaping over the counter or embarrassing the cashier, wondering how it was that I just gave them $1.30 for the privilege of witnessing a dog and pony show minus the dog and the pony.

"Could you just hand me the cup?"

"Oh, right. Sorry."

All I want is a cup.

Not the crispy cup, the grilled cup, the six-piece cup with sauce, a cup with a side order of cups - only a cup! Right there, by your hand. All it takes is a few firing neurons, though usually at this point I'd like to see the firing of just about anything and anyone.

McDonald's needs a few more if-then statements written into their flow charts.

Statements such as "if a customer orders a soda, then you just hand them the cup." Or "if there's no other customer waiting and the other workers are too busy and confused behind you to fill the order on the receipt you pushed down the counter, then take a chance and hand the customer the cup."

I just need a cup to take with me over to the self-serve fountain to serve myself at no great disruption to the employees. Just a cup.

Now, aged (but not as aged as I am now), I understood.

As my friend stood there, snickering, I realized that processes and patterns were very useful, but only if you could realize when they weren’t.


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