Synergizing IT & Ops

By Abigail A. Lorden • Editor | October 01, 2007

As a highly-accomplished restaurant operations executive, the buck often stops with David Thomas. Serving as the chief operating officer for Boston Market Corporation from May 2005 until just last month, Thomas is known in the industry for his passion for simplicity coupled with innovation- a passion that helped align Boston Market's operations and IT initiatives in an enviable fashion. The cross-departmental collaboration ultimately allowed Boston Market to solve several operational challenges, significantly boost guest satisfaction, and push the brand to the top ranks of the fast-casual dining segment.

"Innovation is what will continue to move our industry forward; but it's the power of simplicity, in connection with innovation, that will drive that change,"explains Thomas. "We're a people business, so if processes are not easy for our people to execute, they're likely to fail."

Thomas exits Boston Market on positive terms following its acquisition by Boca Raton-based investment firm Sun Capital Partners, Inc. He joined the company in November 2001 as Southeast division president and previously held various management positions at McDonald's Corp.

During his tenure at Boston Market, Thomas oversaw all field operations, including more than 14,000 employees at 650 restaurants in 28 states. With a team that vast, simplicity was and continues to be at the heart of all that Thomas does.

But simplicity alone is not enough to foster progress. For Thomas and Boston Market, that's where the power of IT and innovation step in. IT at Boston Market goes beyond point of sale implementations and drive-thru systems. While those areas will always be a focal point of fast-casual IT, Boston Market has harnessed the unique strengths of its operations and IT departments to achieve new levels of problem solving and guest satisfaction.

TEAM APPROACH

At the core of Boston Market's cross-departmental collaboration is a team approach to problem solving. Known as PART, the Prioritization and Review Team is a diverse group of executives, with representatives from operations, finance, IT and marketing. Every project, upgrade or new initiative that uses IT resources - man power or dollars ¬ must go through PART review and approval.

The process begins with a business case, which the requesting depart-ment or individual submits to PART. The case must make clear all costs involved and any expected ROI. The proposed initiative must also support one of the company's Wildly Important Goals (WIGS). A WIG is a goal so critical, according to Thomas, that failure to achieve it renders any other achievements inconsequential. Boston Market has identified four WIGS (see box below).

GOAL SETTING: WIGS

At Boston Market, any new initiative must fit into one of its core goals, known as a WIG or Wildly Important Goal. These are the goals that make all the difference; they are so critical that failure to achieve a WIG renders any other achievements inconsequential. The company narrows its goals to boost chances of achieving them with excellence. Boston Market has identified four WIGS.

  1. Have great food available all the time
  2. Ensure every guest believes he or she gets his or her money's worth
  3. Have a restaurant management structure that is fully staffed and trained
  4. Stay focused

"If a proposal is not in sync with those company goals, it won't get approval to move forward,"explains Thomas. Some items may not require a direct return on investment; PART also evaluates proposals based on benefits of change. "But as much as we can establish an ROI, we want to."After evaluating the business case, PART delivers a recommendation to C-level executive leadership.

So far, the process has been successful. "If someone isn't satisfied with the decision of PART, they can appeal to the executive leadership team."That, however, hasn't had to happen yet.

Building on the success of PART, the company is also forming a Simple Team to evaluate execution processes and determine if they are user-friendly and intuitive in nature. The team will include the chief food officer and executives from field operations and development. The goal, according to Thomas, will be to reduce the chance for error. "Once an area for error reduction is identified, IT will enter the picture and work with the team to address the issues."The team's first order of business will be to simplify back-of-the-houseprocesses for making food, which has already been much improved as a result of IT-operations collaboration.

COOKING CHICKEN

"We had a chicken cooking schedule that was very esoteric and difficult to use,"notes Thomas. Managers used a selection of charts and projection methods to make a best guess as to how much chicken to prepare to meet demand. Not surprisingly, just 25 percent of the company's restaurants were able to use the system effectively. As a result, restaurants often found themselves out of chicken.

"We brought IT and operations into the same room to solve the problem, "Once an area for error reduction is identified, IT will enter the picture and work with the team to address the issues."and were able to create a system whereby now all an employee needs to do is count the number of chickens they have, hit a button, and the system outputs how much chicken to load."What was once a back-office process happens at the front counter, keeping employees in front of the customer more of the time. Any team member can execute the cooking schedule and as such usage is at 96 percent.

"The IT team realized the vision with regard to simplification and ease, and put in plumbing-for-ease so that the procedure could easily be moved from the back office to the front counter,"explains Thomas.

Technology has improved cooking operations two-fold. "In our systems for oven management, IT support provides data on how many items to cook. From time to time, however, the system was asking the preparer to do something they couldn't physically do,"recalls Thomas. For example, it would tell users to prepare 2.3 pot pies. "That can't be done. You can't cook 2.3 pot pies. I said, 'Can we modify the data collection resource to print out information in a way that is simple for the user?'"Now the system gives an exact number, synergizing IT with what needs to happen in the restaurant.

MEASURING SATISFACTION

IT also plays a critical role in improving Boston Market's customer approval rating. The company uses a measurement tool called a Net Promoter Score (NPS), created by Fred Reichheld, author of "The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth."The score measures customer response to a simple question: How likely are you to recommend Boston Market to a friend or col-league? Guests respond using a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most likely. "Promoters"of the restaurant are those that rate it highest, at a nine or 10. "Neutral"responders are those that answer with a seven or eight and any response between zero and 6 is considered a "detractor."From there, the company performs a simple calculation of subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters. The difference is the Net Promoter Score.

When Boston Market first polled its guests, it earned an NPS of 38 percent. While the number is decidedly higher than the average across industries (which is somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent according to Reichheld) Thomas and his team knew they had to do better to remain viable in the highly competitive fast-casual restaurant space.

In order to measure performance against its WIGS, the company again tapped its IT and financial departments and worked with customer experience management vendor Empathica (www.empathica.com) to collect performance data and establish a performance scorecard. Customer feedback is obtained via the Internet and IVR (interactive voice response) telephone systems. Empathica then compiles and churns the data, looking for patterns and problem areas. "The Empathica data obtained is a leading trend indicator of what the guest is saying about Boston Market. This allows the company to hone in on one, two or three areas that need attention and get everyone working on them."

Using this approach, Boston Market was able to elevate its NPS to 52 percent. The IT group, according to Thomas, was instrumental in the data collection and analysis surrounding the company's NPS. The growing score bodes well for the company's future performance. "The NPS is great indicator that you are doing things right on a regular basis,"says Thomas. Reichheld's research supports this, finding that loyalty leaders tend to have a high NPS.

"The front line is the bottom line,"reminds Thomas. "Everything that the operations people do, along with all of the other departments that support the brand, should be defining their worth by whether or not they make that person who stands in front of the guest able to deliver with passion and excellence."

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