Chick-fil-A is using Tableau to find nuggets of gold in the COVID-19 economy

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 16, 2020
American fast food retailer Chick-fil-A is rolling out reporting to restaurants using Tableau tools and has created a community of analysts to support users.

Image of some Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets and fries
(Image sourced via Chick-fil-A website)

Chick-fil-A prides itself on being a community-focused fast food retailer. Since being founded in 1946 in Georgia, the family run business has grown to become a household name in the US with now more than 2,400 restaurants across the country. However, whilst being known for its delicious chicken burgers, nuggets and strips, behind the scenes the organisation has been growing its analytics capabilities in order to improve its operational efficiency and better serve its customers.

This is being done through the combined use of a number of tools, including Tableau and support from Interworks, as well as building up a community of analysts internally that are able to guide and inform colleagues when they've got questions that need answering.

Justin Winter, Sr. Principal Team Leader of Enterprise Analytics at Chick-fil-A, was speaking at Tableau's virtual user event this week, where he explained how the organisation is prioritising its data investments since the fallout of the COVID-19 economy, as well as outlined some examples of how the company is looking to get more data out into the hands of restaurants.

Winter explained that Chick-fil-A's approach to analytics started back in the 70s and 80s, much like many other organisations, when spreadsheets started becoming available and departments needed to start trying to develop their capabilities. He said:

At Chick-fil-A that arose in three primary functions - marketing through customer analytics and insight, in real estate for site selection, and lastly through finance looking at sales lift and profit opportunities. Over the years that developed a little bit, especially in the finance area, where they started realising that sales lift and profitability was really relevant to understand. So we started doing centralised consulting out to the other departments across the company.

We were looking at training programmes, at products, at reinvestment, at a lot of different initiatives. That started to really grow and grow and got the point where we were actually holding back most of the business because they had daily real time needs and our cycle for even assigning workers to help and support them was slower than the pace of the questions that they had.

This all came to a head in 2017 when Chick-fil-A began to rethink its approach and deployed a new model, which it currently runs today. A group called ‘Enterprise Analytics' was established, which was built to centralise core elements of the strategy that didn't decentralise well. This included advanced analytics, analytics infrastructure, as well as the core enterprise data strategy.

At the same time the company decentralised a lot of operational analytics, including reporting, embedded consulting and function specific knowledge. However, Winter and the leadership at the time soon realised that there was a key element of the strategy missing - community engagement. He explained:

One of the elements that wasn't in that strategy was really the grassroots engagement within the community. That was something that as we were getting close to the 12th hour to launch the programme that we really needed to figure out really well. So we launched a community of practicing analysts, which we launched with about 20 people that were sent out into departments. If you fast forward to today, that's grown about 10X in terms of that community.

One of the things that we did to really invest in that community was create a lot of resources to provide that connective tissue back. That connection between all of the analysts across those areas. We were concerned that these 20 people that had worked together in a group, as analysts together, would lose that community and that ability to iron sharpens iron.

So as we sent them out we knew we had to be really intentional about making sure that we provide opportunities to learn together, to share together, to have folks solve each other's problems.

Chick-fil-A has done this in a couple of ways. For example, a number of user groups have been created, including an internal user group for Tableau, as well general education using a data literacy framework. Winter added:

There's nothing more exciting, or more of a validation of that model, to see a user raise a question about a tool or how to get a data element, and then see two or three other analysts answer within minutes. They're building each other up and growing together and that's been amazing to see. Tableau has been a great piece in that overall as a core tool for the analyst community.

Reassessing projects

Winter said that Chick-fil-A has a long and consistent history of having a long-term mindset around growth, rather than focusing on short term gains. He explained:

That consistency allowed us to have the privilege of really not focusing so much on external impacts on our sales and on our performance. We realised that what's happening in the outside world is way more impactful than what we're doing. And we need to understand that better.

With this in mind, when COVID-19 hit the US and lockdowns ensued, Chick-fil-A decided to have an outside perspective on its business, which meant using and pulling in external data on what's happening in the market. It wanted to get a better understanding of the changing consumer behaviour and mindset, as well as assess risks and expectations. Winter added:

That really led us to a different mindset around planning that was much more agile, that was much more continuous learning, continuous development. And while that meant some of our favourite projects got put on the shelf, that also meant some really cool new investment opportunities that were more important right now, got opened up to the business.

One project, which had been three or four years in development, that got shelved was a plan to launch a new infrastructure for reporting to Chick-fil-A restaurants. Winter said:

There was a lot of heartburn in me for that. But we said that these big, longer term infrastructure projects are not the priority in this season.

However, soon after the project was put on the back burner, the analytics team was hearing that the visibility the analytics team provides to restaurants was holding the organisation back from giving operators the capabilities to drive new customers and sales. This led to thinking about building a custom reporting server. But the analytics team realised that they could slim down its shelved infrastructure project to provide some of this capability, setting up restaurants for the long run. Winter explained:

That took some frantic, good, tough conversations to lay that out, but the organisation bought into that vision and they invested in that. So we were able to pick those contracts back up and start moving that forward. We just launched recently and it has delivered value already.

We're really excited to be able to provide the simplicity of access, as well as the complexity of insights. To make complex insights simple and easy to consume. Secondly, to use great IT technology partnerships to help us make sure that the creations that our analysts are able to build can provide the quality end product to our restaurant so that we're not getting tonnes of help desk calls about a data pipeline being broken, or something like that. The other piece though is simplifying the consumption of that content.

For us, when we started thinking about it, we were like we have so many systems that are available to our restaurants from all the different applications that they have to do. We got a lot of great thinking at Chick-fil-A and that creates a lot of different systems and a lot of different projects. And almost all of those projects have data and information and reporting. We can't convert all of those reports today over into Tableau, nor would we really want it. And so what we did was blend a lot of the legacy systems with new Tableau content, and then use Interworks Curator for that. We are calling that our analytics hub and we are serving up Tableau through it, as well as other multiple reporting platforms and systems.

We are pretty excited about the promise to be able to quickly say, hey show me sales. Show me reports from this legacy system and have it served up. So we can both then plug and play as we phase out some legacy systems with more insightful Tableau reports, but also have a one stop shop for insight for restaurants.