Business and burgers

Mar 11, 2019

It might seem far fetched, but it’s true. AEC firms can learn a thing or two from the fast-food industry.

I watched a movie the other day that I enjoyed for all the wrong reasons. The movie was The Founder, and its plot centered on Ray Kroc, the legendarily opportunistic entrepreneur who took the McDonald brothers’ idea for an efficiently-run burger stand and transformed it into a global food brand, virtually creating the fast-food industry in the process.

Kroc had a rare talent for deals, and the movie primarily chronicles his empire-building in this light. But I was instead transfixed by a core concept that could still have relevance to us in the AEC industry, all these years later. In fact, it’s what actually drove Kroc to expand the business model in the first place – the efficient operational design accomplished by the McDonald brothers a decade earlier.

By all accounts, process efficiency was not a new idea by the mid-20th century. Operational design had formed the basis of successful business empires of all types dating back to the Industrial Revolution, but what the McDonald brothers accomplished was the application of such efficiencies to food service. Here it was, an otherwise nondescript burger stand in San Bernardino, California, producing burgers and shakes with the assembly-line mechanics of a Ford auto plant. And the results were similar – a good-quality product delivered quickly and cheaply.

By far the most interesting scene in the movie is a recollected vignette depicting the footprint of the planned restaurant being drawn to scale in chalk on a tennis court. Then, like dancers taking the stage at the direction of Dick McDonald, the staff executes a ballet of food preparation. A pivot here, a swing there, precisely measured and adjusted to avoid collisions and maximize speed. Everything is composed and arranged, down to the exact number of pickles per burger (it’s two, if you’re wondering). When an early layout results in bumps and crashes, the whole thing is erased and redrawn with improvements informed by the rehearsal. It’s more than just choreography; it’s the mechanical design of an operational process, albeit in human movement. Through all of Kroc’s single-minded deal-making in the years that followed, the core of the brand’s success remained its efficient process model, as established on that humble tennis court.

Nobody thought to apply mechanical process efficiency to a burger stand until the McDonald brothers thought to do so in the 1940s, and the resulting benefits couldn’t have been clearer. But yet, 70-plus years on, we in the AEC and professional services fields tend to strongly resist the notion that operational efficiencies can improve our business. For some reason, we shy away from business models that encourage profits or cost control, preferring to adhere to older models that ignore key concepts such as skill specialization or speed of deliverables. And to be fair, we’re not exactly dealing with French fries and chocolate shakes. But we should ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • Are we determining which processes result in the fewest conflicts and collisions? When and how do we get in each others’ way, impeding our work?
  • Do we understand where our materials, labor and expenses really go, and how they combine to form the products or deliverables we create? Can those elements be quantified and controlled, like ketchup and pickles on a bun?
  • Are the concepts of high quality and speed of deliverables really mutually exclusive? Or do we simply need to adopt the right modern technology to accomplish both?
  • Are we making sure our ideas are carried out by the right people, with the right training and tools? Do we assign writing tasks to skilled writers, graphics to designers, and client relationships to our best communicators?

I’ll admit that applying concepts associated with McDonald’s to an AEC firm could be viewed by some as undesirable; or at the very least, reflecting a diminished value of service through a soulless mechanical process. But from an operational viewpoint, I propose the contrary – that all professional services firms can embody these efficiency models to their own business, just as the McDonald brothers did more than 70 years ago. Those that do are poised for profits and growth, regardless of what anyone wants to say about them. Simply put, if striving for these ideals means that I’m a “McDonald’s man,” then I’m in. Or, perhaps more appropriately: I’ll have the combo meal, please.

David Coyne is a principal and the COO of Liberty Environmental, Inc., which provides environmental consulting and engineering services to clients across the United States. Coyne can be reached at

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