Learning Lean from Col. Sanders??


Fried Chicken Dinner, on the Fly – New York Times

This isn't a “lean” article per se, but still, it reminded me of the operational problems that Starbucks has had recently. KFC, and other fast food operations, are pretty much like high-volume assembly line operations. The article above (requires free NYT registration) details the operational details that went into “designing” KFC's new creation, some sort of bowl filled with foods from most of Homer Simpson's food groups: fried, greasy, and gravy.

I'll give KFC some operational credit (but not culinary) for involving the production line (the store) in the product development process, otherwise known as “concurrent engineering” in the manufacturing world. In the lean mindset, we preach that manufacturing companies not “throw the design over the wall” to the factory. It seems like KFC might be doing a better job at this than Starbucks. Starbucks threw their Frappucinos over the wall and it's slowing down their drink production and their customer lines (or demand for those drinks grew beyond what they anticipated).

“Before the $3.99 Mashed Potato Bowl could be rolled out in May, KFC had to verify that its stores could handle the preparation — a vetting that the chain refers to as an “ops shakedown.”

To facilitate rapid delivery, KFC's Crispy Strips, which required dicing before being added to the bowl, were replaced with Popcorn Chicken, which is already bite-size. “There was a significant operations win for us in not having to cut anything up,” Ms. Scheibmeir said.”

That's a classic labor-content reduction move — having raw materials arrive in a usable form that requires minimal processing (frying, but not cutting). The “Ops Shakedown” sounds like a pilot program, I'm sure they were developing standard work for the stores and were making sure that everything could be assembled in a short enough timeframe for busy customers.

KFC also could be, arguably, using some Lean Solutions and Lean Thinking concepts by not thinking of themselves as a “fried chicken company,” which would keep a narrow focus on frying traditional pieces of chicken that people eat at a table. Like it or not, people eat while driving, so KFC is providing “meal solutions.” Putting all of those ingredients in one bowl, which might sound disgusting to some, is “providing value in the eyes of the customer,” one could argue. Cheap food, tasty food, portable and can be eaten while driving, that's what customers want.

KFC did “voice of the customer” testing and “car seat of the customer” testing, which I think they deserve some credit for. The process of piloting and testing new designs, with customers, will lead to a better solution than the one you might have thought was perfect, but was created in a vacuum.

“To ensure the efficacy of the product's packaging, KFC's developers drove around Louisville with stacks of five or six Mashed Potato Bowls on their passenger seats.

Sharp turns, sudden stops and intentionally careless handling didn't cause the lids to pop off, so Ms. Scheibmeir and her team felt confident that spillage would be a rarity.”

Does any of that give you any ideas for your own company or process?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Starbucks did one thing to reduce variation in their espresso making: They converted from standard machines to machines that use premeasured and prepackaged pods. With accurate water temperature and pressure control, each cup is just like the last.

    Now everyone can wear the black apron. And we’ll have to look elsewhere for the barristo who can produce that perfect cup through skill alone.

    Luckily, my spouse has taken on the challenge at home, albeit without the $5,000 machine.

  2. I think a lot of people would argue that this automation at Starbucks has harmed their espresso quality. But, I think that applies mostly if you drink straight espresso, which most Starbucks customers don’t do. I guess they know their customers and audience and their quality needs (you can’t taste mediocre espresso in a sugary latte).


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