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Burgers or Subs? Let the Work dictate the Design

Posted by Stephen Parry on Oct 21, 2019, 4:16:38 PM

It is amusing that numerous Lean experts cite the McDonald's fast-food system as a Lean system when in fact it is an excellent mass-production system. It does not even qualify as fake Lean, because it is not trying to pass itself off as Lean. Rather, it is the confusion in the minds of the so-called Lean experts. So, what are they getting confused about? Most likely it is about the concept of on-demand, flow and standardisation.

In the McDonald's production method, the products do seem to flow, using the ordinary understanding of that word. In fact, however, it is just a batch-and-queue system; it is not one-piece flow -- that is the McDonalds LinkedInproduct is moving continuously, with only one item at any position, at any one time.

McDonald's has a standardised process and  it is designed to deliver a standardised product with little variation and little customer influence over what is produced. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with McDonald's. However, it is not Lean.

A simplified illustration of of mass production and Lean can be offered in the ways fast-food chains like Subway and McDonald's have approached the task of preparing food and serving customers.

Understanding the difference between batch-and-queue and flow is

key to designing products and services.

Usually the current organisation is based on a batch-and-queue system, whereby work gets stockpiled and moved around departments. In manufacturing this can be seen in the form of inventory waiting in staging areas; in services it can be seen as sorting and prioritising service requests, tiered services such as first-line, second-line, sorting invoices into batches for processing, and so on.

Most fast-food burgers chains follow, to a large extent, the batch-and-queue principle. In one such chain, each worker is assigned a particular task in the production and serving process. Food is cooked in batches, usually according to a forecast based on daily trends and the manager’s intuition. The kitchen staff prepares ingredients to a forecast and waits for instructions to cook it. The food is then placed in a staging area for frontline staff to serve customers.

If the forecast is wrong, then either too much food is produced, resulting in waste, or not enough food is produced, resulting in lost revenue. Production in expectation of customer demand can result in high levels of waste, so staff in this situation are targeted on meeting demand and minimising waste. The customer is offered a choice of standardised products and combinations.

If the customer wants any other variety, then this can only be achieved as a special request – in effect, production by exception and priority. This circumvents the main production process, usually leaving this customer waiting much longer than other customers even though she or he is now getting special treatment. In this scenario, product standardisation reduces variety, thereby simplifying the production process.

SubwayWhile difficult, creating flow is an important feature of an on-demand pull service (Womack and Jones 1996).  Subway is an excellent example of one-piece flow. When you enter, you are immediately offered a number of varieties of bread and rolls from which your sandwich or salad will be constructed. You are invited to choose what ingredients you would like. You are free to look at the ingredients and to make choices based on what appeals. You give your order, and the ingredients you have chosen are placed in the sandwich or salad, which is then passed to another worker who finalises the order and takes the money.

In this situation, the sandwich or salad flows as one piece, from the start of the operation to final completion. The customer is involved in every part of the process. Variety is built in and does not need special off-line treatment. There are no staging areas where food could go to waste; all food is produced on demand, not to forecast.

To learn more about eliminating waste and creating value in your organisation, whether products or services, read the following:

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