Many Americans get their first job working at a fast-food chain. You may have been one of them. If so, you probably remember your first day. Maybe you started at a register. Or perhaps you began in the kitchen. Either way, you had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Every member of the team was counting on you to help keep the lines moving. Patience isn’t a virtue in this business, after all.
Fast-food restaurants make for good first jobs because the tasks are fairly easy to learn and don’t require any specialized knowledge going in. But they’re also good first jobs for another reason. When you get a job in fast food, chances are you’re joining a well-designed and effective team that works smoothly under pressure. Fast food lines might not always be as fast as we’d like, but they’re reliably quick, and it’s the team design that makes it so.
It’s extra impressive what fast-food teams regularly accomplish given that the team can only move as fast as the slowest person on it, turnover tends to be high, and a lot of the crew has little other job experience. And yet these teams move with a purpose. You may have read that when a COVID-19 vaccination clinic needed to get its backed-up drive-thru moving, it brought in a Chick-fil-A manager.
If you’re creating a new team or restructuring one you already have, you could do worse than look at fast-food teams for inspiration. You probably won’t be mimicking the particular functions, roles, or processes of those teams, but there’s nevertheless a lot to learn from how these teams are designed and how they operate.
What’s their secret? These teams succeed because they’re clear about the value they provide and because their functions, roles, and processes are all designed to provide that value. Let’s look more closely at their design and what it can teach us.
Like all restaurants, fast-food chains serve food, but the food isn’t the value they provide. The value is the speed with which you get your food. It’s the convenience of a quick meal. It’s also the uniformity of the experience. Whether you purchase a Whopper and fries at a Burger King in Eugene, Oregon or in Ankeny, Iowa, you expect the meal to look and taste the same, and you expect to get it fast. In most instances, you do.
Businesses like this are set up to deliver a fast and uniform customer experience. Get in line, get your food, and go about your day. No delays. No surprises. This is what you expect when buying fast food, and every decision made at a fast-food joint is designed to satisfy this expectation. The measure of success for every function, process, and performance is whether this value is delivered.
Before you determine or reconsider team functions, processes, and roles, clarify the value your team is meant to deliver. That value, remember, isn’t a product or a service or an internal “deliverable.” It’s the need or want satisfied by whatever your team provides. It’s the why behind what your team does.
If you’re not sure what value your team is meant to have, ask yourself what success looks like. What are the one or two or three big signs that your team is or would be doing a good job? What makes relevant parties happy when your team has done its job well? Those should clue you in to your team’s specific value.
The functions of a team are those things that need to happen for the value to be delivered. When a customer orders a hamburger at McDonald’s, they expect to get it quickly and for it to taste like every other McDonald’s hamburger they’ve eaten. A series of tasks makes that happen. The order is taken and communicated to the kitchen. A bun is prepared. Condiments are added to it. A beef patty is cooked and placed on the bun. The finished burger is wrapped, handed off, and bagged. Money is taken. Food is delivered.
When you’re considering what functions your team performs or will perform, don’t think about roles just yet. Think first about what value your team is expected to deliver and what functions make that happen. Write down all of the work that gets done or needs to get done. Account for every task.
Next, ask yourself how each function contributes to the value that your team provides. Consider also whether that work actually needs to happen. Fast-food restaurants, for example, found that indoor lines move faster when customers fill and refill their own drinks. The task of filling drinks, when done by employees, slows things down. Removing this task from the team sped things up, i.e., increased the value they provided.
Don’t confuse functions and roles. If you pop into a McDonald’s during a lunch rush, you’ll likely see five or so people in the kitchen each assigned to a separate task . But arrive during an afternoon lull, and you may just see one or two people doing all this work. In places like McDonald’s, managers typically determine roles with each shift. Today an employee may be scooping French fries into containers. The next day, they may be taking drive-thru orders. This flexibility enables employees to learn all of the team functions over time, builds speed and familiarity with each one, and it keeps the work from quickly becoming monotonous. Because everyone can do everything, sudden reassignments, say when an employee calls in sick last minute, are easier to accommodate. Speed doesn’t suffer (too much).
Day-to-day role assignments may not work for your businesses, but it’s still a good idea to keep functions and roles separate in your mind and in your future team planning. Conflating the two risks locking people into roles that don’t develop (or enable them to develop). Aligning roles with functions too rigidly can also isolate your people, limiting the number of people with whom they interact and the places where they can add value. But dividing up functions more liberally can bring more variety to each role and expand the areas where people in those roles are able to collaborate with others on their team.
The process of getting a burger made and in the hands of a customer is fairly simple and straightforward, but the demand for speed and the volume of orders both make it easy for mistakes to happen. During a rush, the kitchen crew has a continual stream of orders on the table, each with a different destination.
To manage the flow of ordered items and keep multiple lines of people moving, fast-food teams must communicate quickly and clearly. When an assembled and wrapped burger moves from the kitchen to the frontline crew, there can’t be any question about which bag or tray it should go to. Any uncertainty wastes time and decreases value.
Clear communication is valuable everywhere, of course, but speed may not be the value your processes should be designed around. People tend to like it, for example, when their doctor takes extra time to listen to them and understand their needs. Medical offices that get patients in and out as fast as possible aren’t delivering the value those patients typically want. They soon get a bad reputation. That reputation fairs even worse if doctors take ample time with patients, but the staff scheduling appointments have been told to schedule as many appointments as possible.
When you’re figuring out how your team should communicate and collaborate, let the value your team provides be your guide, and make sure every member of your team is guided by the same value.
Fast-food chain managers decide who to hire and fire, what to pay, and whom to schedule, but they have no say in the decisions about the products they make and sell. They don’t decide what temperatures to cook the meat or how much mustard or ketchup to use or how large the fry containers should be. Those decisions are made outside the restaurant. This makes perfect sense. Customers expect uniformity, so you don’t want the kitchen staff experimenting with the secret sauce or patty sizes or seasonings that go in a taco. Not even a franchise owner has the liberty to make those decisions.
But if uniformity isn’t what interested parties expect from your team, you probably don’t need as many decisions dictated from on high. The members of a team tasked with coding a video game with never-before-seen features would probably do well having the freedom to experiment, take risks, fail, and try again.
Deciding who makes decisions and in what circumstances can be daunting for managers. A lot can go wrong. Some people enjoy having autonomy and authority over their work, and they’d choose other employment if they had no say over their work and how it gets done. Others don’t want the stress of making decisions that could help or harm the company. More people making decisions invites more bad decisions and workplace drama, but fewer decision-makers can restrict a team’s ability to be creative and innovative.
Whatever you decide about your team’s decision-making authority, make sure it aligns with and supports the value your team delivers, especially long term. Next, explain to your team how decision-making on the team works. No one should be uncertain about who makes decisions and when. Finally, hold people accountable to their decisions. Reward decisions that add value, and address issues with decisions that detract from it. That also means holding yourself accountable for how decision-making is done in your organization.
You may have noticed that we haven’t covered the essential step of hiring and retaining the right people for the roles you need. That was deliberate. The steps above—clarifying value, considering functions, assigning roles, implementing processes, and deciding who decides—form the design of your team. Think of this design as the team architecture that your team members operate in, whoever they may be.
That said, don’t be afraid to allow your particular employees to help shape the overarching team design. For a team to be effective, it must be a source of value to the people on it. People don’t stay engaged with a team or remain on it when that team doesn’t meet their own wants and needs. Team input can make a good team design even better.
Kyle Cupp is an HR certified professional author, editor, and researcher. His writing has appeared in USA Today, The Daily Beast, TLNT, and elsewhere.
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