Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Is It Taking So Long?

I am sitting in the hotel restaurant. There are only two other tables with customers. There are five waiters to serve us. I ordered a South Indian filter coffee 20 minutes before and I am wondering, “Why is it taking so long?”

The service in India is actually very good in general but often on the slow side. If you have a special request, they will bend over backwards to satisfy it. We wanted applesauce for our son when he had an upset stomach: they mashed the apples up and prepared applesauce from scratch. They were always extremely polite and courteous. But they did take their time and often we had to remind them that we had orderred something.

I observed the wait staff and it was humorous to see that most of them often didn’t know what they were supposed to do. They would stand around but in a way that they wouldn’t observe the customer if he had a request. They were always very quick to remove your plate (often before I had a chance to finish) but if I wanted to order coffee or tea, or get the bill, I had a hard time finding anyone who would look my way.

What occurred to me was that there might be a tendency in India to squander labor in the way we in the west squander water. We think, “Water is cheap; I’m not going to waste time trying to find ways to conserve it.” In India, if a problem with service can be fixed by either hiring more servers or by using existing servers more efficiently, they will usually opt for the former. Labor is cheap; why waste time thinking about how to conserve it?

But it seems a bit jarring to an American. We tend to think of wasting labor in the way people in India might view wasting food. We think that labor is precious and shouldn’t be wasted. But labor isn’t precious in India.

Over time, this will change. Firms will not squander labor because labor costs are rising over time.

One good thing about Indian hotel restaurants is that there were buffets for breakfast and dinner in most cases. This meant you didn’t have to wait for your food and the variety was wonderful. But since these meals were included in the tariff, there was a strong incentive the store up food in your “hump” like a camel in the morning and try to make it last until evening. The problem with this strategy is that the “hump” has great staying power and I took mine back to the U.S.


  • Trust me, the waiters in India are anything but polite. However there is a huge factor called 'colonial hangover' which is etched into the collective psyche of the society. So, if you happen to be Caucasian, chances are they will bend backwards. Sometimes, its even funny how much they do.

    Else, gosh! they are annoying.

    By Blogger Nilu, at 9:00 AM  

  • Hi Nilu
    That might be true. The annoying thing is that they insist on serving the food on your plate which I can do myself.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:18 AM  

  • We have this tendency to see labour as one of those "everlasting" things. We see labour and abundance of it as an end in itself. Even as I write this, I think it can be a topic for one of my next posts! Thanks!

    By Blogger Neelakantan, at 2:01 AM  

  • Michael, that is so true what you have said about labour being cheap in India - so we tend to use more labour for tasks that might be otherwise automated or managed with fewer people. for instance, STD (long distance phone) booths in India are always manned and raraely automated - labour is cheap but technoogy not so much - in the west it is the other way round...
    about waiters in small resuaurants, yes they are sometimes so quick - quick to the point of irritation - it also has to do with the high turn over, the demand for chairs espwecialy at "peak" meal times... so they shove the food under your noses and pull the plates away, even before you finish!

    By Anonymous charu, at 3:41 AM  

  • Hi Neelakantan and Charu
    Neelakanatan: Nice post. I think that labor will be used more efficiently over time. The cost of labor is increasing.

    Charu: It isn't just a matter of automation - although that is a related area. There are times when even using simple tools, it could be done more efficiently. For example: I saw an old lady sweeping a giant train station lobby with a traditional broom. In a hotel, I saw a man sweeping with a much larger boom. Just using the right broom would make someone more productive.

    The change will happen over time. These opportunities will be exploited.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:06 AM  

  • The annoying thing is that they insist on serving the food on your plate

    Michael, in Indian tradition, it is considered good manners to serve food to the guests/elders/etc., rather than having them help themselves.

    I think this may be the reason for the waiters to serve food. They consider it a matter of courtesy.

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 8:49 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth
    Well, if the waiter feels that he is being polite by serving me, then I guess one of us is getting something out of it.

    Something interesting I noted: no waitresses anywhere. All the waitstaff were male.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:42 PM  

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