Line Balancing at McDonald’s

By Ron Pereira Published on May 5th, 2009

I was recently going through the drive through at McDonald’s and saw something very peculiar.

The line was quite long but I decided to stick it out.  As I sat waiting to get to the board where you speak your order I noticed a McDonald’s worker holding some electronic clip board thingy.

A few minutes later she was at my window to take my order.  Of course I knew what I wanted (I’m a Big Mac meal guy all the way) so I was able to tell her without reading their menu.

It worked out, I guess?

A few minutes later I was at the window to pay and then shortly thereafter I had my food.

I’m thinking this added process may have actually improved my overall experience… but I’m really torn as to whether this is the best way to go about things.  I mean they’re obviously addressing some “line balancing” issues by sending this poor lady out with her electronic clip board, right?

What would you do?

What do you think?  What should they do to address the root cause?

  1. Paul Rizzo

    May 6, 2009 - 4:43 am

    Make two ordering Stations.

  2. Paul Cary

    May 6, 2009 - 7:07 am

    I have often thoough about line balancing at the fast food drive through or inside a fast food franchise like Dunkin Donuts. I think a fast lane would be a better solution seperating the exceptions (20%) from the common (80%) offerings. The 80% are typically kanbaned and would be able to be dispatched quickly avoiding the bottleneck of the woman in the car with 5 kids who want different toppings on their burgers.

  3. Jon

    May 6, 2009 - 10:36 am

    That’s better than an experience I had at Wendy’s once, where they had the girl walk through the line inside taking orders, and simply writing them on a slip of paper and handing it to you. I suppose this was to prevent indecisiveness at the register, but that didn’t help the people making the food get it to us any faster. It just meant less time taking orders and more orders in the system. Didn’t help.

  4. Darrin Thompson

    May 6, 2009 - 1:26 pm

    How much deeper can you go? A fast food chain is mature enough to realize that making burgers faster isn’t going to solve their real problem, so they improve the order taking process, and blow through hordes of rush-hour patrons in record time. That seems like they understand continuous improvement really well.

    What’s not to love?

  5. Mindo-san

    May 6, 2009 - 2:08 pm

    The time it takes for a customer to get the ‘hamburger’ is dictated by the slowest point. In your example it sounds like it was the preparation of the food. The line is the inventory. It didn’t get any shorter. It just moves it from ‘people-waiting-to-order’ pile to ‘people-waiting-for-order’ pile.

    Paul Cary’s suggestion is very interesting. Assuming that food preparation cannot be paralalized, his suggestion balances the load by ‘batch-size’ — so to speak. It will improve throughput.

  6. Namrata

    May 7, 2009 - 10:27 am

    I dont know if I see what the lady with the clip board as true line balancing. The ordering sub process generally takes shorter than the food processing and packaging sub processes. So when I visualize this as an assembly line, I see “order inventory” pile up between the order taker and food processor 1. True line balancing would have been if the lady with the clipboard assisted with the food processor.

  7. Jeff Hajek

    May 8, 2009 - 10:33 am

    The root cause is cyclical demand. Peak at breakfast, lull, peak at lunch, lull, peak at dinner. Until we get people eating at regular intervals throughout the day, there is going to be a tradeoff–overcapacity at lulls vs undercapacity at peaks. (Eating is a batch process, especially on holidays.)

    I’ve seen two other methods of doing the same thing as the clipboard lady. One local Micky D’s has two ordering stations in series, which helps, but isn’t perfect (the front one might be empty while the back one is occupied). Another location has two side-by-side lanes, which is great for flow, but takes up more real estate. Both still require extra staffing, though. But…

    I heard rumors a few years ago that orders from the drive in lane were going to be taken at a central facility (outsourced) and routed back to the local franchise. I haven’t heard any more on this, but that would diminish some of the problem of managing variable demand.

    I bet it is only a matter of time, though, until there’s an iPhone app for placing an order, paying, and signalling when you pull up to the window…

  8. Ken Walton

    May 17, 2009 - 5:31 am

    A few McD’s where i have been get around the variability side of things by having a few car parking facility bays, whereby you wait for your order, then it is brought out to you.Obviously the turnaround for the variability orders have to be quite quick, as there may only be a few car bays.If too slow then an overflow will occur.I have seen variability checkouts, but only inside the restaurants. It works.
    Maybe Ron’s MC’D problems are occurring due to incoming orders being processed slower than the ability for the restaurant to deliver at final stage. New starters maybe, in training at the order end of things……..i dunno.

  9. Ken Walton

    May 17, 2009 - 5:35 am

    P.S. To address this, i would certainly be measuring the cooking process (variability etc), as well as the information flow process from order to delivery.

  10. Chad

    June 1, 2009 - 7:58 pm

    Chick-fil-A where I’m from does the same thing but they have two individuals out taking orders. The store is on a small lot and busy location and so the line gets very long very fast and runs into other parking lots. If they would’ve realized how busy they would be they could have put the speaker further back to solve this issue.

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