Supersizing technology

Monday, October 22, 2007

The time is a little past noon and that hungry feeling hits. A quick turn into a local McDonald’s in Southeast Missouri, and a pleasant female voice takes the order.

At the window, however, a teen boy is taking the money.

That sweet-voiced woman? She’s in South Dakota. At her home.

It isn’t happening yet, but it will happen soon, said Shannon Davis, owner of the 11 McDonald’s in Southeast Missouri from Jackson to Malden. Davis has experimented with order-takers working from a call center in Colorado, as well as one at the headquarters for his restaurants in Cape Girardeau.

But he’s decided that improvements in voice-over-Internet and the expansion of broadband access to rural areas means he can hire people to work from their homes taking orders for his restaurants. Davis plans to employ stay-at-home mothers, retirees and the homebound disabled, among others, for the new service.

“It is very cool because it allows us to employ people who ordinarily wouldn’t work for us,” Davis said.

The earlier experiments with outsourcing his order-taking earned Davis a mention in the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times columnist who has written extensively about globalization and the advantages -- and challenges -- presented by technology. Friedman’s basic message is that the marketplace will send work to where it can be completed most efficiently, from medical transcription done in Australia for American doctors to McDonald’s orders being taken remotely from the restaurant.

The speed of communications technology is driving those changes. But it is how the technologies are used, not the existence of them, that determine whether they are a blessing or a curse, Friedman writes.

“These are just technologies,” he writes. “Using them does not make you modern, smart, moral, wise, fair, or decent. It just makes you able to communicate, compete, and collaborate farther and faster.”

Like any repetitive task that deals with both materials and information, a McDonald’s restaurant can become more efficient by the application of technology, Davis said.

That cold beverage that was part of the order? It is now filled automatically, from dropping the cup to filling it with ice and liquid, the only time a human has to touch it is when the lid goes on.

More ice? No problem. As the order is taken, it tells the machine to load up the cup.

Like Henry Ford’s application of the assembly line to automobile production, the application of technology and the specialization of employees to a particular task will make the restaurants more efficient, Davis said.

“It allows people to specialize in order taking,” Davis said, and he finds that makes the employees friendlier, and they remember more often to suggest additions to the meal, such as dessert or a larger size of fries.

Having a person taking an order while completing a transaction and serving the order means a loss of efficiency, Davis said. “They can do both jobs or they can do one really well,” he said. “When you start double functioning a person, their efficiency goes down.”

Sending orders over the Internet is just part of ongoing changes behind the counter at McDonald’s. When Shannon Davis’s father opened the first McDonald’s in Cape Girardeau on Broadway in 1968 -- the same year the chain rolled out the Big Mac -- customers parked their cars and walked up to an order window.

Davis, as a lad, would wipe down tables, wipe off trays and work in the stockroom.

Today, the drive-thru window accounts for 70 percent of his business. Taking those orders quickly and accurately is crucial.

“If there is one person in the wrong spot, you do 80 orders in an hour compared to 110,” Davis said.

And if the food isn’t ready, it hurts volume as well, Davis noted. The computer system McDonald’s supplies to the stores learns the stores volume, directs which foods to cook and when and even knows that at certain times of the year, volume is higher for particular items.

“The computer puts out charts based on historic data,” he said. “For example, if it is 12 to 12:15, you need four trays of quarter pounder meat ready.”

And the computers tell the central supplier for McDonald’s branded products which items are needed in the store.

Along with computers that help direct the production at the restaurant, computers also allow for remote monitoring of almost everything that occurs in the restaurants, from how fast customers are served to whether employees are loafing on the job.

Davis has 14 to 15 cameras watching each restaurant. A broadband Internet line brings the images from each camera to the central office in Cape Girardeau, where the images are recorded digitally. Those images have been used by police in investigations.

It has also caught some amusing, and not so funny, moments. One employee, waiting for the next customer, used a sink for a seat. It didn’t work out for the young man as the sink broke away from the wall.

In another instance, a seemingly innocuous older couple eating at the restaurant in Miner, Mo., was captured on camera rifling the purse left behind by another customer. They got the money-laden wallet and other items and have never been caught.

“We’ve got the ability to watch what is going on in the restaurants, watching operations and security,” Davis said.

But the big push is for efficiency. McDonald’s was built on fast service and standard quality. Stores are allowed to experiment, and some ideas sound better than others.

One operator in Colorado Springs, Colo. put a phone on every table. Customers call in their order when they are ready, and servers bring it to the table and take the payment. Davis said he’s unlikely to adopt that model. Not because the employees aren’t ready, but because the customers aren’t.

“I did not want to take on the battle of retraining (customers),” he said.

The bottom line for using the remote, home-based ordering system is efficiency, he said. Labor costs could go down 1 to 1-1/4 percent and order volume is estimated to go up 3 percent, he said. And in a saturated fast-food market, those small improvements mean a lot for the bottom line.

And the McDonald’s corporate headquarters is watching.

“When we win, the corporation wins,” Davis said. “We are fighting for inches now instead of yards.”

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