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Super-sized gamification for training - McDonald's is lovin' it

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne June 7, 2016
Burger behemoth McDonald's is tapping into 3D virtual reality gamification to train up its staff.

We serve over three million customers a day, so delivering customer experience on a consistent basis across so many sites is a challenge for us.

One of the ways McDonald’s is helping deliver a better customer experience is by using gamification techniques to educate staff, according to Mark Reilly, UK head of corporate training at the fast-food giant.

In September, McDonald’s will go live with a 3D virtual reality replica of its new-look restaurants designed to train managers. In these new premises, food is prepared for them to order instead of burgers and fries stacked up ready to go.

This just-in-time production process is more complex and requires managers to think differently about managing the ratio of front to back-room staff. In the traditional style restaurants, it makes sense to have more staff at the counter taking orders, but with the just-in-time model, this isn’t necessarily the case.

The role of a manager is like playing chess, according to Reilly. It’s all about where you place your pieces, and how you adapt when circumstances change. Reilly explains:

As a manager, you have to really monitor customer flow and make sure you’ve got the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

McDonald’s needs to change their managers’ habits and also improve their ability to make good decisions quickly. Using the 3D environment, managers can take a virtual walk through the store, reacting to things they see. Reilly explains:

What we want is for managers to make decisions as they would do in a shift.

Managers will then be able to see the consequences of their decisions – good and bad – played out in the virtual store. Reilly says:

For me the most powerful way to learn is by doing and by making mistakes.


McDonald’s first got hooked on gamification about five years ago, when it developed a game to train front-line staff how to use new tills. Reilly says:

You worked through 20 minutes of serving customers and as you progressed through, it got more and more challenging.

Reilly quietly put it on the McDonald’s portal and it went viral. Some 50,000 people played it in the first six weeks and saved the company roughly £1/2m in direct training costs. Five years on, it’s still being used as a training tool, making the initial £40K price tag look a bargain indeed.

While the 3D virtual environment is probably going to be three times more expensive, it could potentially be used by McDonald’s worldwide. And it can be added to and adapted in the future.

The success of the till game inspired McDonald’s to unleash a whole load of gamified learning, but while some great stuff was developed, Reilly sounds a note of caution:

It got to the situation where people were using gamification because they were excited about gamification rather than using it for work.

The company took a step back and researched gamification and what really motivates staff to learn. Reilly was inspired by the ideas of Dan Pink, author of five bestsellers on human behavior.

According to Pink, the three main things that motivate people are:

  • autonomy - we all like to feel in control.
  • mastery - we all want to think we’re getting better at doing something.
  • purpose - we want to feel that what we do matters.

In a bid to engage staff and get them to be more effective, Reilly applies these principles to its gamification initiatives.

Board games

McDonald’s move into 3D virtual reality sounds very futuristic, but Reilly is keen to stress that gamification is not all about expensive technology.

Last September, the company introduced an old-fashioned board game to help new recruits get better acquainted with the company and customer service.

The idea was to make the orientation process more engaging and to emphasize the importance of teamwork, as well as dealing with customers. Now, new recruits spend 40 minutes or so playing the board game as a team. Reilly says:

Early indications suggest that people who’ve been through this process are 35% more confident when they start their first job, but also we’ve seen some impact in turnover and also the customer experience.

It’s a key lesson for any company thinking about using gamification, says Reilly:

It’s very easy to get excited about using the new best thing – that’s what happened to us so it’s very important to make sure you’re using gamification for the right reasons and it fits the purpose of the learning.

McDonald’s experience of gamification has also taught Reilly that learning has to be fun and has to think about the audience its targeting:

Learners are really savvy, so everything around gamification or at the backend has to be sophisticated enough to get them engaged and want them to come back. And the things that we have done have created that pull rather than a push.

If you get it right, then it will grab learners’ attention and they’ll get their friends to try it – there’s no need for a hard push, says Reilly:

With the till game we didn’t integrate into LMS and we didn’t even tell people they had to do it, but they found it and they tweeted about it to their friends. And for us that’s more powerful. Young people – you can’t tell them what to do. So our challenge as a profession is how do we create learning that people want to do and go off and do it themselves.

So in this case of gamification, the ‘build it and they will come’ approach actually works 0 providing that what is built is engaging and fit for purpose.

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