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Burgers and the culture challenge

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy March 9, 2014
Great culture doesn't emerge magically. It is built upon principles that lead to profitable sustainability. What can we learn from burger chains?

burger and fries
For a foodie like me, tipping up at a burger joint lists fairly low on my list of priority eating establishments. But if there's one thing every visitor to the US should try it's a well cooked burger. And I don't mean one that comes from the golden arches outfit.

Yesterday, I paid my own personal homage to the mighty US burger by going for a bacon cheeseburger and cajun fries plus cherry Coke at one of the many Five Guys establishments in the Bay Area around San Francisco.

The choice was based upon two things. First, my buddy Pat Phelan recommended it obliquely in a Facebook post. Second, Five Guys scores well - at least according to this site. What's curious is that as fast food goes, Five Guys is relatively expensive and you do have to wait yet it consistently gets rave reviews. I have to agree with others - it was a solid choice and I'd definitely go back for more.

When I posted about my experience on Facebook, Jeff Nolan, another foodie and buddy had this to say:

I'm more of an in-n-out guy, 5 guys is just too much for me. Both, however, are good examples of fast food culture meets damn good eats.

I've yet to try In-N-Out (now bucket list item 341) but as I clicked around their website, I saw this 1975 obituary to the founder:

Harry’s commitment to providing his customers with the freshest, highest quality foods and a spotless, sparkling environment has given the company’s 18 restaurants a reputation for excellence. Harry's devotion to his associates, who are treated as family, is as important as his core values of cleanliness, quality and service. The innovative spirit that inspired Harry to develop the Two-Way Speaker for drive-thru customers, and the commitment to quality he demonstrated by thoroughly inspecting and selecting meat and produce every morning in the early days, have contributed to a legacy that will carry In-N-Out toward the next century guided by an unwavering dedication to its customers.

My emphasis added. Fast forward to 2010 and a message from Lynsi, the new CEO who talks in glowing terms about her antecedents:


[Uncle] Rich was instrumental in setting us up for our future success by adding an even greater focus on our Associates. His commitment to training was unparalleled and the In-N-Out University operates today as a result of Uncle Rich’s belief in the importance of training. My father, Guy, was just as passionate about quality as his dad. Dad was so fanatical about quality that he invested heavily in the company’s quality assurance team. Today, our warehouse, meat department and commissary teams only accept and deliver the freshest and highest quality products resulting in the great tasting burgers, fries and drinks that our customers enjoy. Our state-of-the-art quality controls still have my dad’s fingerprints all over them.

My emphasis added again.

I find this kind of thing fascinating for several reasons:

  • Five Guys and In-N-Out have established differentiated offerings based upon top quality products, well trained staff and a great in store experience.
  • Price and wait time aren't blockers for buyers.
  • The founding principles upon which they were based are carried through the whole chain in a manner that consistently delivers.
  • Past success is recognized as being the result of excellence in service and is carefully nurtured and preserved across the generations.

Today, I reckon that a good 30% of my conversations with customers and vendors center around the topic of corporate culture. This is something I know is close to Euan Semple's heart and one where he sees many challenges in large organizations.

I'm told and to a certain extent believe that organizations need to have a near death experience before culture rot is swept away. That appears to be the consistent message history teaches us.

Most recently, Stuart Lauchlan talked about how RyanAir is rebooting itself.  Check the clutch of comments. No-one believes they will manage it any time soon. Their reputation has soured too many people. It's a culture thing, emphasized by a leader who often seems to have a 'screw you' attitude.

Much of the change we see being wrought in the applications arena comes from a fresh approach to customer service culture. SaaS/cloud for instance can only work for the vendor if the vendor provides the best service they can, every day. As one colleague said to me: "Every day you have to start at zero."

In a recent client engagement, a senior executive was convinced that the company can beat out a specific competitor. He was shocked when I said that it couldn't be done - at least not now. It became clearer when I explained that the competitor not only has a better mousetrap, but is obsessed with customer success on a daily basis to the point where it will crush partners before seeing customers fail. The obvious question left hanging in the air was this: Can/will you do better? We shall see.

It is the same in the buyer community. In another example I heard about last week, a large CPG company nearly killed a well known brand because it was using an old fashioned method of assessing profitability. It took them three months of hard digging before they realized where they'd gone wrong. If they had only better understood that entrenched methods were giving poor results then they could have course corrected much sooner.

In a professional services business I advised a couple of years ago, it was absolutely clear to the managing partner that change was needed for them to continue growing in a challenging business environment. Unfortunately, a number of the general partners were more concerned about riding out the final few years of their careers and stuffing their pension funds. The business stalled.

In debates among colleagues on this topic, we mostly agree that the difficulty doesn't come from the top. It's those pesky tier two and three career managers who erroneously believe that change threatens their fiefdoms or that in some misguided way, their value as a blocker is what really matters to providing 'balance.' Nothing could be further from the truth.

My sense is that managers of all stripes need to learn lessons from the Five Guys and In-N-Outs of this world. A great culture doesn't just emerge. It is built upon principles that have a strong ethical flavor to them and which are both profitable and sustainable over generations.

Sadly, that knowledge will be lost on many. To that extent, I can only imagine that messrs Hewlett and Packard are turning in their graves as they watch the great company they built slowly rotting from the inside. At least for now.

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