Refining the Plan: Hamburgers on the Tennis Court?

How do you know if your plan will work?

Having a solid plan is one thing; knowing that it will work is something entirely different.  In the transition from idea on paper to success in the real world, refining the plan though testing is probably one of the smartest things we can do.

And as this short story shows, one of the world’s greatest franchises owes its successful start to refining its plan, and they did it in an unexpected way.  Here’s their simple but innovative idea for testing, and some thoughts about how we can refine our own plans until we know that they will work.

Refining the Plan: Hamburgers on the Tennis Court?

Good, But Not Good Enough

Not long ago I watched The Founder.  The movie tells the story of Ray Kroc, who started out as a shake machine salesman and eventually became the CEO of McDonalds Corporation, the largest food chain in the world.

One part of the movie recounted the struggles of the McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice, who were pioneering new fast food concepts at their drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, California.  Their store was doing well, but they thought they had a way to make it even better.

They believed they could cut costs and serve more people faster by improving the efficiency of their kitchens.  So starting from scratch, they re-analyzed every step of the process of making hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes.  They simplified and streamlined everything they could think of, and came up with a plan they thought was pretty good.

So far, so good; but here’s the part I love…

Like Hopscotch on a Tennis Court

Instead of assuming the plan they had drawn out would work, they wanted to test it.  So one afternoon the brothers and several employees met on a local tennis court.  Everyone watched with interest as Dick took out a piece of chalk and drew the new restaurant plan directly onto the surface of the court.

He didn’t just draw walls and doors, he drew in prep tables, griddles, fryers, shake machines, points of sale, and everything else the restaurant would need to function.  He laid everything out full scale and labeled each item right there on the tennis court.

Then he briefed everyone on the improved production process they envisioned.  He had the employees take up their positions at their assigned work stations, and on his signal, they pantomimed the act of preparing the food while Dick observed.

Dick could quickly see where problems arose: the person with the fries would get in the way of the person flipping burgers, or the person with the shakes would collide with the one with the katsup at the garnishing station.

As problems with the plan became clear, he’d stop everyone, adjust the process or edit the chalk lines, then they would try again.

That group stayed on the tennis court for nearly eight hours, erasing and re-chalking entirely new kitchen arrangements three different times.  They painstakingly adjusted every facet of the layout until they knew they had a fully functional plan.

It was a fun scene to watch, but you know how Hollywood can get carried away.  Is that what really happened?  I checked out the section in Ray Kroc’s autobiographical “Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonalds” and he describes the event much as the movie does.

In fact, the plan was to have their architect come out the next day, take his measurements directly from the chalk lines, and finalize the blueprints from there.

Unfortunately, a massive rainstorm plastered the area overnight, and by morning, the chalk lines were gone.  Undeterred, they reassembled their group and recreated their design on the tennis court so that the architect could do his job.

Refining the Plan – The Takeaway

Aside from being a fun story, there are several takeaways from this that make useful tools in our kitbags.

  • As good as something might be, there is always room for improvement. We should always be looking for ways to do things better, faster, and smarter.
  • No matter how good you think your plan is, there are likely to be flaws. Find a way to test, rehearse, or practice to discover what they are and fix them before going full scale.
  • Sometimes a simple expedient is all you need. For the McDonalds brothers, some focused time and 50 cents worth of chalk was all it took to turn an OK plan into a blueprint for a national franchise.
  • Stay flexible and be willing to adapt. It took them the better part of the day to get it done, and the result was very different from the original plan.
  • Time spent thinking, planning, and then refining the plan saved them a great deal of effort later by making sure they got it right the first time.
  • Stick with it.  The effort took all day, then they had to start over the next day.  But they persisted, and the rest is restaurant chain history.

Whether you are building the next great assembly line for hamburgers, or are involved in something less edible, there’s no better way to ensure success than to find a way to refine your plan by testing.

The McDonalds corporation is worth billions today; but way back in the beginning, it started with a good idea and a piece of chalk, tools that are available to any of us.

Lead on!

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