28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Most companies treat lean as a tool set to im-
prove processes from the top down. However,
the top-down approach is costly, not scalable and
too slow to keep pace with the changes needed
to stay competitive.
The better way is to use lean as it was meant
to be: a culture and mindset where every employee is a lean
thinker and practitioner on the systems they work in every day.
Here we see how Chick-l-A transformed lean improve-
ments from being sourced by two dozen engineers to an army
of frontline lean thinkers among 150,000 team members.
Drawbacks to a top-down approach to lean
Like many companies, Chick-l-A began using lean as a tool
set to improve systems and processes from the top down. With
a small team of engineers, it developed and rolled out lean
modules, pareto-prioritized new processes designed to reduce
waste and increase value to the customer, with great successes.
Since 2014, Chick-l-A has grown in sales from $5.5 billion to
$10.6 billion in 2018 and its restaurant base has grown to more
than 2,000 locations.
I’m proud of the systems our engineers developed to increase
capacity, ensure fresh, hot entes with innovative kanban
systems, and push the envelope of serving 300 cars per hour
through our drive-throughs, to name a few highlights.
However, with great growth comes greater problems to be
solved. As restaurants originally designed to do $2 million in
annual sales have grown to an average of $5.5 million, chal-
lenges multiply to maintain and improve key performance in-
dicators of food safety, product quality, speed of service, order
accuracy, customer satisfaction and restaurant capacity. In the
competitive quick-service restaurant industry, as in others, the
From lean modules
to a lean mindset
Chick-fil-A’s success shows how leveraging your greatest asset speeds up cultural change
By David B. Reid
May 2019 | ISE Magazine 29
top-down approach where a few highly trained (i.e., expen-
sive) process engineers work to stay ahead of problems and de-
liver value on a variety of fronts has three critical disadvantages:
Costly. The top-down approach is costly. Our two dozen
engineers are highly skilled, highly paid, represent a significant
cost to the company and, as such, are deployed to work on the
next biggest problems nobody knows how to solve. It wouldnt
be good stewardship to add headcount for problems that can be
solved with a practical and systematic lean approach.
Not scalable. The company’s engineers shepherd a port-
folio of more than 40 prioritized projects. Each typically has
a three-year life cycle from idea to rollout, with large projects
in each phase of development. New projects replace those just
launched. It is a constant battle to not take on new work that
would dilute current efforts.
If we tackled every good idea that came across our desks, we
would get bogged down chasing too many opportunities and
wouldnt execute any of them well. Even if we were able to
afford to double or triple the engineering staff, the complexity
of managing 120 projects (three times the current load) com-
peting for prototyping, validation and launch resources would
become a bottleneck in itself.
All the while, great ideas to solve local pain points are being
generated in the minds of franchisees (owner/operators) and
team members and implemented at the gemba. If there were a
way to share ideas across the chain, it would be innitely scal-
able because the more locations and team members there are as
we grow, the more labs and lean thinkers we have to improve
the process.
Too slow. Perhaps the worst failure of implementing a top-
down approach is that it is too slow. The competition gains
ground every day. New competitors with new ideas, more
agility and less overhead crop up overnight. Three years may
be a fine development cycle for a project that will serve business
needs for 10 to 15 years, but it’s an eternity in the fast-changing,
customer-centric environments companies need to survive and
thrive within to stay competitive and relevant.
A model to reduce the eighth waste
In addition to these three value drawbacks, a top-down ap-
proach is antithetical to the very essence of lean. We dene
the eighth waste as “your team members,” referring specifically
to underutilization of their creativity and skills (see Figure 1).
When process improvements come only from professional en-
gineers, we waste thousands of eyes, minds and hands working
in the process every day who could make local changes im-
mediately to create value, reduce waste and satisfy customers.
Our solution was to approach lean as it was meant to be: a
culture and mindset where every team member is a lean think-
er and practitioner. We followed a long-term process to shift
everyone in Chick-l-A, from leadership to frontline team
members, from viewing lean narrowly as a tool set for a few
to a broad mindset the entire company can use to continuously
improve every area of the business. The six steps to create a lean
culture are described in Figure 2.
Motivate people. The first step is to motivate owner/op-
erators and team members to learn and apply lean principles to
their frontline work. This is easy; just start with a felt need by
having teams identify the pain points in their work. For owner/
operators, such a need is to grow their income potential. For
team members, the pain point is identified by the question:
“What makes your job hard?
It’s worth mentioning how we find the people to motivate.
At this point on the front end of our lean journey, we use a
A model to reduce the eighth waste
Getting team members on board with lean improvement efforts can start you in the right direction.
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
From lean modules to a lean mindset
pull strategy. There are owner/operators, even
whole market teams, very interested in lean
and ask the Chick-l-A support staff to provide
training. When we deliver value, that generates
interest and invitations from others. This “pull
from those motivated and interested results in the
best return on investment, in improvement re-
sults and in influencing a lean mindset across the
Teach lean. The second step is to teach lean
tools and principles to equip this army of lean
thinkers to solve problems and reduce waste.
Chick-l-A uses several platforms to teach lean.
Each serves to reinforce the others and provide
a path of broader and deeper application of lean
based on a team members unique interest in ap-
plying it.
First is a one-day “Lean Kickstart” course.
This eight-hour class starts with the denition of
lean and why we need it in our business. Then,
we teach the concepts of eight wastes, 5S, spa-
ghetti diagram and standard work in fun and
interactive ways with a focus on the restaurant
environment. Teams are challenged to watch for
wastes and pain points for themselves and cus-
Finally, they are given some practical “next steps” (see Fig-
ure 2) and commission them to apply lean on the job. We give
everyone a copy of Paul Akers’ “2 Second Lean: How to Build a
Lean Culture and Have Fun at Work and at Home,” and a Chick-
l-A lean workbook, “Business Lean Participant Guide: System-
atic Application of LEAN (and other) Select Tools to Transcend Your
Performance” by Forrest Hillis, for further study. We celebrate
their training with a frameable “Lean Kickstart” certificate for
completing the course.
Set sandbox boundaries to safeguard your process. As
you can imagine, some risks come with deputizing everyone
in your organization to be a process improvement engineer.
Especially in the food service industry, we must take our com-
mitment to the well-being of the public seriously. The team
member (frontline worker) is at the gemba and, in many ways,
best equipped to improve the process. However, there are in-
stances when a team member doesnt possess the specialized
knowledge or a big enough picture of the business to prevent
unintended consequences in a quest to eliminate waste.
The answer is to provide a clear set of boundaries where
team members can improve the process and where they cant.
We call the area within bounds the “sandbox” they can “play
in.” The term “sandbox” comes from software development,
and refers to a testing environment where new code can be
developed and debugged without risk to the live production
environment (from “Sandbox” by Margaret Rouse, TechTar-
get 2018). Similarly, our lean sandbox consists of the safe realms
where team members can add value with lean without putting
anyone at risk from unintended consequences.
Our sandbox rules are simple: Anything that affects food
safety, people safety, product quality or equipment warranties
are off limits. We introduce this concept at the conclusion of
the Lean Kickstart when we show them our lean Facebook
Developing a lean mindset
The six key aspects of moving your workforce toward lean thinking.
Sandbox boundaries
Team members are advised to avoid innovative ideas that can
compromise product or worker safety, quality or equipment
May 2019 | ISE Magazine 31
page for the first time. Below is how we flesh out the boundar-
ies (seen in Figure 3).
Food safety. Team members cant improve processes (with-
out testing approval from the support center) on anything
that holds, touches or transforms food. For example, they
cant change the cook times or temperatures of food (this
also applies to thaw times and temperatures, hot and cold
holding times and temperatures and cool-down processes).
They also cant change food-handling procedures. One
team member had an idea to put on two sets of gloves so
when his outer gloves got dirty, he could shed them quickly
and continue working. Clever, but we didnt want to risk
cross-contamination from the outer to the inner gloves. We
drafted a post to describe the risk and attached it to the origi-
nal idea.
People safety. Team members cant do anything that puts
people in jeopardy. We’ve had cases where someone thinks
of a faster way to cut lemons, evacuate hot oil, run a machine
or store dry goods in underutilized space high out of reach.
We celebrate the creativity, but we respectfully reiterate that
team members’ safety is our highest priority. This particular
idea, we explain, increases the risk of an accident or injury.
Product quality. Team members cant change a recipe or
order of ingredients, ensuring that every Chick-l-A serves
a consistent, fully vetted and approved product. A resource-
ful team member once posted an idea on how he saved time
by filling a container with tap water from a faucet while he
added sugar and lemon juice, saving the time of letting the
water run by doing the steps in parallel. The problem was
that the order of ingredients – lemon juice, water and sugar –
is important to fully dissolve the sugar for our signature taste.
Equipment warranty. Team members cant do anything
that voids a manufacturer’s warranty. One idea that went vi-
ral was turning the vent shroud around on the bottom of the
Icedream machine so hot air vented
out the bottom went to the back of
the machine instead of the front. The
benefit was that loose napkins or bags
wouldnt get blown around by the exhausted airflow if they
fell on the floor. It sounds like a winner. However, the fan
and shroud were designed to cool the machine by evacuat-
ing hot air. When turned to the wall, the hot air stays in
the machine, wearing it out quicker than designed. A quick
check with the manufacturer conrmed the original design
was intentional and would void the warranty. Again, an in-
formational posting along with the idea curbed the change
as quickly as it spread.
After these examples, it may seem these four rules provide a
small sandbox in which to practice lean, but that’s not the case.
Across 2,000 locations with varying layouts and product mixes,
and more than 100,000 owner/operators and team members
with different pain points, the opportunities to apply lean prin-
ciples to reduce waste, add value and satisfy the customer are
almost innite.
Build a lean community to share improvements. Af-
ter introducing our sandbox boundaries, the next step is invit-
ing our new lean thinkers to subscribe to and post in Chick-l-
As chainwide lean Facebook page. This is a Facebook group of
lean thinkers at the restaurant level who share ideas and applica-
tions with others in the chain.
The number of “likes” and comments a post gets are indica-
tions of how popular an idea is. Since May 2017, more than
4,500 content entries have been posted roughly correspond-
ing to 200 unique ideas; the difference between 200 and 4,500
is discussion on the merits of the idea and often renements
to the initial improvement. Sometimes, the comments serve
as self-policing, as other team members poke holes in an idea
and bring up reasons why it shouldnt be done. These 4,500
posts have been “liked” more than 8,000 times. Each “like” is
alerting and tagging others to make sure they implement this
liked” idea in their restaurant.
A field at the bottom of a receipt
serves to remind customers to
scan the app.
Improvement ideas are welcomed,
but product quality and safety
remain a priority.
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
From lean modules to a lean mindset
Figure 4 lists the five most popular lean ideas as evidenced by
numbers of “likes” and comments received. The most popular
post by far has been a great convenience to customers and a
time-saver to cashiers. We rolled out our CFA One Mobile app
with a feature to reward free treats for the more food you buy.
You have to scan your mobile phone app to claim credit toward
a free treat. When you pay with your phone, this happens au-
tomatically. However, if you pay with cash or credit card, you
still get credit toward free treats if you scan the app.
Yet customers were forgetting to scan. Cashiers were having
to tell each customer individually how to go to a website to
enter their receipt info if they forgot to scan at the time of pur-
chase. While this happens, other customers wait in line.
One lean thinker realized if we put the “forgot to scan?
info at the bottom of the receipt (see photo on Page 31), it
would better serve the customer from having to remember said
website and save time by the cashier simply saying the bottom
of your receipt tells how to get credit for your last purchase.
Genius! Needless to say, this post went viral among managers
and cashiers who answered this question multiple times per day.
Other popular ideas include kanbaning low-use dry goods,
5S projects (see Figure 5) to shorten travel time, setup time or
search time, and myriad other labor-saving ideas.
Note that a couple of the projects in Figure 4 get dangerous-
ly close to the food safety and product quality boundaries set,
namely the multi-biscuit mold and the peppermint dispenser.
When a team member welds a smallware to be used on food,
it hasnt been vetted by the National Sanitation Foundation to
make sure the welds are with food-safe materials and strong
enough to keep loose parts or particles from falling off and con-
taminating food. Similarly, the convenience of an automatic
peppermint dispenser doesnt account for exact portioning and
may adversely affect the taste or food cost of a milkshake.
In these cases, I have an engineer assigned to regularly moni-
tor the lean Facebook page for good ideas as well as those that
violate boundaries. We have owner/operators who adminis-
trate the lean Facebook page whom we alert to the problem
issues. They politely point out the weaknesses of these ideas and
issue a kind “cease-and-desist message.
But we also celebrate the thinking, and when appropriate,
let team members know we are considering how to make their
idea work. In fact, the multi-biscuit cutter idea became a proj-
ect for our engineering team. We developed a rolling biscuit
cutter that is about to roll out chainwide thanks to a lean think-
er making biscuits who thought there must be a better way.
Before you think it seems risky to allow team members to
share ideas that havent been vetted, consider the alternative. If
we didnt have the Facebook page as a safe place to share ideas,
a team member likely would have thought of the innovation,
made it and perhaps shared it with other restaurants. We would
5S steps
Team members undertook these methods to create efficiency.
Most popular lean ideas
These are among ideas introduced by Chick-fil-A team members since May 2017.
May 2019 | ISE Magazine 33
have had no visibility into the fact a new smallware was being
used. This way, we are often the first to know when something
may be a problem, and are also the first to know when someone
has a great idea we should accelerate (in a food-safe, people-safe
and product-quality way).
A saying applies here: “we would rather have to restrain
mustangs than to kick mules.” I’d much rather have an army
of 150,000 lean thinkers whom we occasionally have to rein in
than to waste their talent out of the fear of the unknown.
Celebrate wins. Everybody loves to be recognized for a
job well done. It values the individual and sets the tone and
expectation for what we want to produce more of. We have
several ways we celebrate lean wins. We celebrate the comple-
tion of a Lean Kickstart course with a certificate and ceremony
commissioning lean thinking from our new grads. We also
host contests on the lean Facebook page. We have often run a
monthlong contest that offers a specic problem we’d like help
to solve. We’ve held contests asking for the best idea to im-
prove food safety, order accuracy and store closing and opening
times. The criteria for the contest are that whoever gets the
most “likes” for an idea in 30 days wins.
This creates a fun, competitive environment and a lot of
ideas in a short amount of time, gets everyone thinking about
problems important to our business and sometimes produces a
breakthrough idea. The prize is generally recognition for the
idea in a handwritten thank-you note from someone high in
leadership at Chick-l-A and a $100 Amazon gift card.
And of course, we recognize great ideas we steal. There was
an entire article on the Chick-l-A internal website officially
giving all restaurants the idea to add the “forgot to scan” text to
the bottom of the receipt. Credit was given to the team mem-
ber who posted that idea.
And when we elevated the multi-biscuit cutter idea to an
engineering project and came up with the biscuit roller, we
did a video thanking the team member who had the original
idea, giving her a stake in the success that would make biscuit
makers’ jobs better.
Celebrating “wins” honors the lean thinkers who use their
talents to create success for Chick-l-A, and it also builds aware-
ness and participation in the lean culture we want to create.
Provide paths for deeper lean learnings. All of the
progress weve talked about up to this point is the result of a
one-day investment in lean. We also offer paths for those who
want to grow their lean skills further.
We maintain a lean resource library website for any team
member interested in learning more. I often travel with a cou-
ple of giveaway copies of Akers’ “Second Lean” or “The Lean
Six Sigma Pocket Toolbook” to pass on to a team member curious
about process improvement. I even gave away my stopwatch on
one occasion when I wanted to inspire a team member to keep
observing and measuring in his/her restaurant.
Our lean department offers a three-day kaizen event over
three weeks for restaurant teams who want to accelerate their
improvement. The first day is introductory teaching of lean
tools and how a kaizen event works. The next meeting is to
pick a project and gather data. The final meeting is to tabulate
results, make the changes permanent and celebrate wins. As
you can imagine, this is a significant investment to have a lean
facilitator available to travel to restaurants, but in each case, it
has also yielded significant results.
Finally, Chick-l-A has a yearlong Lean365 course for own-
er/operators who want to go deeper. One day a month, they
learn time study, standard work, quick changeover (SMED),
error proong and other lean skills to take back to their teams.
We are dreaming of creating a two-year lean certication for
team members. In addition to having a great first job, we envi-
sion also intentionally imparting the most practical job skills
training for the 21st century world. What if every company
taught lean to its young workforce? Even when workers leave
for other opportunities, well be cross-pollinating lean training
around the world.
The full circle will be to train team members how to con-
duct lean kickstarts. Our lean transformation will be complete
when each restaurant teaches lean thinking just as it teaches
how to assemble a chicken sandwich and say, “My pleasure!
This is the six-step process for how we’ve transformed lean
improvements from being sourced from about two dozen en-
gineers to an army of frontline lean thinkers among 100,000-
plus team members. If you want to keep your business growing
while others react slowly, you need to accelerate continuous
and breakthrough improvement, reduce waste to increase value
and find new ways to satisfy customers. Your best chance of
thriving in business is to cultivate a lean mindset into your or-
ganizations culture. I highly recommend our six-step process
outlined here to accelerate your organizations lean journey.
David Reid, PE, is a business-minded IE manager in the Restaurant
Experience Team at Chick-l-A Inc. in Atlanta and an IISE member.
He has worked with Chick-l-A since 2014. He has a passion to share
lean concepts and skills with the next generation of leaders and is avail-
able to speak, train or consult.
A team member’s idea for an improved biscuit cutter led to
a revised product.