What’s in your Burrito?

In between the layers of tortilla, there’s more than just black beans, cheese, chicken, and guac ($0.50 extra!) on your Chipotle burrito. That simple burrito also holds the culmination of years of research and practice into Standard Work, manufacturing techniques, and assembly line management.

In what has perhaps failed to be recognized as one of the great ironies of history, W. Edwards Deming died in 1993, the same year Chipotle was founded in Denver. Unless the father of quality made a pilgrimage out to Colorado in the last six months of his life, it is unlikely he ever witnessed many of his principles applied to fast casual Mexican food. Today, Chipotle is one of the best places anyone can go to see operations and quality put in practice in everyday life.

When we discuss Six Sigma, Lean, and all the other tools of the trade, oftentimes people envision a manufacturing floor. But these principles are just as applicable everywhere else. Who doesn’t love efficiency? Visit Chipotle twice in one day, or better yet stay a few hours and observe. During off times, the line is managed by two or three people, and the one scooping your pico and guacamole is often the same one ringing you up and boxing your order. But go during peak times at lunch and dinner. Employees quickly, almost instinctually flex into the line and automatically divide the work up amongst the new number of hands. At the busiest of times each individual task is handled by a single person. Once complete, your bowl is passed – assembly line style – to the next person. At the end of the line someone swipes your card while someone else bags your food up and thanks you for coming in. A marvel of the modern age.


Learning to See

This thought occurred to me, of seeing the efficiency in everyday life, while reading The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt.  In it, he describes The Theory of Constraints, which has become a management approach employed by the most astute business operations leaders. Many managers have at least a passing familiarity with this essential text. While fictional, we hear an anecdote of a production manager’s struggle to get a troop of Boy Scouts back to camp in time. Quickly on we see our constraint incarnate in the affable but un-athletic Herbie. As the slowest member of the troop, he lags behind if placed at the back of the line and holds everyone else up if placed in front. By dividing up the load in his heavy backpack amongst the other boys, the team is able to alleviate the constraint and complete their goal in time. Through the unexpected lessons learned on this camping trip with his son’s scout group, our protagonist solves the operational problems back at the plant.

That’s not to say the argument with your spouse about doing the dishes is best solved by applying Standard Work models to the task and working through a drum-buffer-rope with them, but it can be fulfilling to see the sheer power and ability for change of the tools we use every day.

We constantly find ourselves coaching our clients about the need to avoid being myopically quantitative, and this is a good way to break out of that. When you start to train yourself to analyze the interactions among the systems around you, you tend to get away from the hyper reliance on data. You don’t need to hit up the queuing theory charts to see how the basic structure of the line system differs at a small, local grocer versus a Target or a Wal-Mart.

This will certainly benefit your professional life as well. When you have a difficult project at work, insights and observations from outside will inevitably filter in. “Going to the floor”, something else we acclaim extensively, will be easier when you have this experience. Observing the peculiarities and habits of people as they work allows you to identify and address the issues that routinely come up across all industries and settings.


The Applications are Endless

The really enjoyable part of this is when you start to notice which parts of the system are intentional and which are organic. A system of norms and practices will of course develop anywhere people are in constant interaction with each other, it’s just a matter of whether someone sat down and thought out how this should run or allowed it to develop on its own. Next time you’re stuck in line, see if you can identify the constraint and whether a little bit more planning on the organization’s part could have prevented it from arising.

Regardless of the context you apply your skills in, it is a great way to bridge the real world with the professional skills we all have. The utilitarian applications are easy enough to see – your charity or church would certainly appreciate talent – but even just analyzing the systems around you as a type of mental stimulation is fulfilling in itself. Get out to where the work is happening!

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