From Lean Modules to a Lean Mindset

ISE Magazine May 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 5

By David B. Reid

Most companies treat lean as a tool set to improve processes from the top down. However, the top-down approach is costly, not scalable and too slow to keep pace with the changes needed to stay competitive. The better way is to use lean as it was meant to be: a culture and mindset where every employee is a lean thinker and practitioner on the systems they work in every day. Here we see how Chick-fil-A transformed lean improvements from being sourced by two dozen engineers to an army of frontline lean thinkers among 150,000 team members.

Drawbacks to a top-down approach to lean

Chick-fil-A began using lean as a tool set to improve systems and processes from the top down. With a small team of engineers, it developed and rolled out lean modules, paretoprioritized new processes designed to reduce waste and increase value to the customer, with great successes. Since 2014, Chick-fil-A has grown in sales from $5.5 billion to $10.6 billion in 2018 and its restaurant base has grown to more than 2,000 locations.

However, with great growth comes greater problems to be solved. Challenges multiply to maintain and improve key performance indicators of food safety, product quality, speed of service, order accuracy, customer satisfaction and restaurant capacity. In the competitive quick-service restaurant industry, as in others, the top-down approach where a few highly trained (i.e., expensive) process engineers work to stay ahead of problems and de-liver value on a variety of fronts has three critical disadvantages:

Costly. The top-down approach is costly. Our two dozen engineers are highly skilled, highly paid, represent a significant cost to the company and, as such, are deployed to work on the next biggest problems nobody knows how to solve.

Not scalable. The company’s engineers shepherd a port-folio of more than 40 prioritized projects. Each typically has a three-year life cycle from idea to rollout, with large projects in each phase of development. New projects replace those just launched. It is a constant battle to not take on new work that would dilute current efforts.

Too slow. Perhaps the worst failure of implementing a top-down approach is that it is too slow. The competition gains ground every day. New competitors with new ideas, more agility and less overhead crop up overnight. Three years may be a fine development cycle for a project that will serve business needs for 10 to 15 years, but it’s an eternity in the fast-changing, customer-centric environments companies need to survive and thrive within to stay competitive and relevant.

A model to reduce the eighth waste

In addition to these three value drawbacks, a top-down approach is antithetical to the very essence of lean. We define the eighth waste as “your team members,” referring specifically to underutilization of their creativity and skills. When process improvements come only from professional engineers, we waste thousands of eyes, minds and hands working in the process every day who could make local changes immediately to create value, reduce waste and satisfy customers.

We followed a long-term process to shift everyone in Chick-fil-A, from leadership to frontline team members, from viewing lean narrowly as a tool set for a few to a broad mindset the entire company can use to continuously improve every area of the business. The following is the six steps to create a lean culture:

Motivate people. The first step is to motivate owner/operators and team members to learn and apply lean principles to their frontline work. This is easy; just start with a felt need by having teams identify the pain points in their work.

Teach lean. The second step is to teach lean tools and principles to equip this army of lean thinkers to solve problems and reduce waste. Chick-fil-A uses several platforms to teach lean. Each serves to reinforce the others and provide a path of broader and deeper application of lean based on a team member’s unique interest in applying it.

Set sandbox boundaries to safeguard your process. As you can imagine, some risks come with deputizing everyone in your organization to be a process improvement engineer. Especially in the food service industry, we must take our commitment to the well-being of the public seriously. The team member (frontline worker) is at the gemba and, in many ways, best equipped to improve the process. However, there are in-stances when a team member doesn’t possess the specialized knowledge or a big enough picture of the business to prevent unintended consequences in a quest to eliminate waste.

The answer is to provide a clear set of boundaries where team members can improve the process and where they can’t. We call the area within bounds the “sandbox” they can “play in.” The term “sandbox” comes from software development, and refers to a testing environment where new code can be developed and debugged without risk to the live production environment (from “Sandbox” by Margaret Rouse, Tech Target 2018). Similarly, our lean sandbox consists of the safe realms where team members can add value with lean without putting anyone at risk from unintended consequences.

Our sandbox rules are simple: Anything that affects food safety, people safety, product quality or equipment warranties are off limits. We introduce this concept at the conclusion of the Lean Kickstart when we show them our lean Facebook page for the first time. Below is how we flesh out the boundaries

  • Food safety. Team members can’t improve processes (without testing approval from the support center) on anything that holds, touches or transforms food. For example, they can’t change the cook times or temperatures of food (this also applies to thaw times and temperatures, hot and cold holding times and temperatures and cool-down processes). They also can’t change food-handling procedures. One team member had an idea to put on two sets of gloves so when his outer gloves got dirty, he could shed them quickly and continue working. Clever, but we didn’t want to risk cross-contamination from the outer to the inner gloves. We drafted a post to describe the risk and attached it to the original idea.
  • People safety. Team members can’t do anything that puts people in jeopardy. We’ve had cases where someone thinks of a faster way to cut lemons, evacuate hot oil, run a machine or store dry goods in underutilized space high out of reach. We celebrate the creativity, but we respectfully reiterate that team members’ safety is our highest priority. This particular idea, we explain, increases the risk of an accident or injury
  • Product quality. Team members can’t change a recipe or order of ingredients, ensuring that every Chick-fil-A serves a consistent, fully vetted and approved product. A resourceful team member once posted an idea on how he saved time by filling a container with tap water from a faucet while he added sugar and lemon juice, saving the time of letting the water run by doing the steps in parallel. The problem was that the order of ingredients – lemon juice, water and sugar – is important to fully dissolve the sugar for our signature taste.
  • Equipment warranty. Team members can’t do anything that voids a manufacturer’s warranty. One idea that went viral was turning the vent shroud around on the bottom of the Ice dream machine so hot air vented out the bottom went to the back of the machine instead of the front. The benefit was that loose napkins or bags wouldn’t get blown around by the exhausted airflow if they fell on the floor. It sounds like a winner. However, the fan and shroud were designed to cool the machine by evacuating hot air. When turned to the wall, the hot air stays in the machine, wearing it out quicker than designed. A quick check with the manufacturer confirmed the original design was intentional and would void the warranty. Again, an in-formational posting along with the idea curbed the change as quickly as it spread.

Build a lean community to share improvements. After introducing our sandbox boundaries, the next step is inviting our new lean thinkers to subscribe to and post in Chick-fil-A’s chainwide lean Facebook page. This is a Facebook group of lean thinkers at the restaurant level who share ideas and applications with others in the chain.

The number of “likes” and comments a post gets are indications of how popular an idea is. Since May 2017, more than 4,500 content entries have been posted roughly corresponding to 200 unique ideas; the difference between 200 and 4,500 is discussion on the merits of the idea and often refinements to the initial improvement. Sometimes, the comments serve as self-policing, as other team members poke holes in an idea and bring up reasons why it shouldn’t be done. These 4,500 posts have been “liked” more than 8,000 times. Each “like” is alerting and tagging others to make sure they implement this “liked” idea in their restaurant.

Figure 4 lists the five most popular lean ideas as evidenced by numbers of “likes” and comments received. The most popular post by far has been a great convenience to customers and a time-saver to cashiers. We rolled out our CFA One Mobile app with a feature to reward free treats for the more food you buy. You have to scan your mobile phone app to claim credit toward a free treat. When you pay with your phone, this happens automatically. However, if you pay with cash or credit card, you still get credit toward free treats if you scan the app.

Yet customers were forgetting to scan. Cashiers were having to tell each customer individually how to go to a website to enter their receipt info if they forgot to scan at the time of purchase. While this happens, other customers wait in line.

One lean thinker realized if we put the “forgot to scan?” info at the bottom of the receipt, it would better serve the customer from having to remember said website and save time by the cashier simply saying the bottom of your receipt tells how to get credit for your last purchase. Genius! Needless to say, this post went viral among managers and cashiers who answered this question multiple times per day.

Other popular ideas include kanbaning low-use dry goods, 5S projects to shorten travel time, setup time or search time, and myriad other labor-saving ideas. Note that a couple of the projects get dangerously close to the food safety and product quality boundaries set, namely the multi-biscuit mold and the peppermint dispenser.

When a team member welds a smallware to be used on food, it hasn’t been vetted by the National Sanitation Foundation to make sure the welds are with food-safe materials and strong enough to keep loose parts or particles from falling off and contaminating food. Similarly, the convenience of an automatic peppermint dispenser doesn’t account for exact portioning and may adversely affect the taste or food cost of a milkshake.

In these cases, I have an engineer assigned to regularly monitor the lean Facebook page for good ideas as well as those that violate boundaries. We have owner/operators who administrate the lean Facebook page whom we alert to the problem issues. They politely point out the weaknesses of these ideas and issue a kind “cease-and-desist” message.

But we also celebrate the thinking, and when appropriate, let team members know we are considering how to make their idea work. In fact, the multi-biscuit cutter idea became a project for our engineering team. We developed a rolling biscuit cutter that is about to roll out chainwide thanks to a lean thinker making biscuits who thought there must be a better way.

Before you think it seems risky to allow team members to share ideas that haven’t been vetted, consider the alternative. If we didn’t have the Facebook page as a safe place to share ideas, a team member likely would have thought of the innovation, made it and perhaps shared it with other restaurants. We would have had no visibility into the fact a new smallware was being used. This way, we are often the first to know when something may be a problem, and are also the first to know when someone has a great idea we should accelerate (in a food-safe, people-safe and product-quality way).

A saying applies here: “we would rather have to restrain mustangs than to kick mules.” I’d much rather have an army of 150,000 lean thinkers whom we occasionally have to rein in than to waste their talent out of the fear of the unknown.

Celebrate wins. Everybody loves to be recognized for a job well done. It values the individual and sets the tone and expectation for what we want to produce more of. We have several ways we celebrate lean wins. We celebrate the completion of a Lean Kickstart course with a certificate and ceremony commissioning lean thinking from our new grads. We also host contests on the lean Facebook page. We have often run a monthlong contest that offers a specific problem we’d like help to solve. We’ve held contests asking for the best idea to improve food safety, order accuracy and store closing and opening times. The criteria for the contest are that whoever gets the most “likes” for an idea in 30 days wins.

This creates a fun, competitive environment and a lot of ideas in a short amount of time, gets everyone thinking about problems important to our business and sometimes produces a breakthrough idea. The prize is generally recognition for the idea in a handwritten thank-you note from someone high in leadership at Chick-fil-A and a $100 Amazon gift card.

And of course, we recognize great ideas we steal. There was an entire article on the Chick-fil-A internal website officially giving all restaurants the idea to add the “forgot to scan” text to the bottom of the receipt. Credit was given to the team member who posted that idea.

And when we elevated the multi-biscuit cutter idea to an engineering project and came up with the biscuit roller, we did a video thanking the team member who had the original idea, giving her a stake in the success that would make biscuit makers’ jobs better.

Celebrating “wins” honors the lean thinkers who use their talents to create success for Chick-fil-A, and it also builds aware-ness and participation in the lean culture we want to create.

Provide paths for deeper lean learnings. All of the progress we’ve talked about up to this point is the result of a one-day investment in lean. We also offer paths for those who want to grow their lean skills further.

We maintain a lean resource library website for any team member interested in learning more. I often travel with a couple of giveaway copies of Akers’ “Second Lean” or “The Lean Six Sigma Pocket Toolbook” to pass on to a team member curious about process improvement. I even gave away my stopwatch on one occasion when I wanted to inspire a team member to keep observing and measuring in his/her restaurant.

Our lean department offers a three-day kaizen event over three weeks for restaurant teams who want to accelerate their improvement. The first day is introductory teaching of lean tools and how a kaizen event works. The next meeting is to pick a project and gather data. The final meeting is to tabulate results, make the changes permanent and celebrate wins. As you can imagine, this is a significant investment to have a lean facilitator available to travel to restaurants, but in each case, it has also yielded significant results.

Finally, Chick-fil-A has a yearlong Lean365 course for owner/operators who want to go deeper. One day a month, they learn time study, standard work, quick changeover (SMED), error proofing and other lean skills to take back to their teams.

We are dreaming of creating a two-year lean certification for team members. In addition to having a great first job, we envision also intentionally imparting the most practical job skills training for the 21st century world. What if every company taught lean to its young workforce? Even when workers leave for other opportunities, we’ll be cross-pollinating lean training around the world.

The full circle will be to train team members how to con-duct lean kickstarts. Our lean transformation will be complete when each restaurant teaches lean thinking just as it teaches how to assemble a chicken sandwich and say, “My pleasure!”

This is the six-step process for how we’ve transformed lean improvements from being sourced from about two dozen engineers to an army of frontline lean thinkers among 100,000-plus team members. If you want to keep your business growing while others react slowly, you need to accelerate continuous and breakthrough improvement, reduce waste to increase value and find new ways to satisfy customers. Your best chance of thriving in business is to cultivate a lean mindset into your organization’s culture. I highly recommend our six-step process outlined here to accelerate your organization’s lean journey.