Not long ago I was in Tucson, Arizona and I am constitutionally unable to visit the southwest without stopping at In-N-Out Burger. While there I had a great opportunity to see the power of a couple of fundamental lean principles in action.

In a scene reminiscent of Don Imus’ 1200 Hamburgers to Go prank from back in the day (For the younger readers, there was a day before he was spending his mornings making an ass of himself with racist comments about college athletes Imus was a pretty popular and funny radio guy on WNBC in New York) a guy from a local hospital came in and placed a huge order. I don’t know the details of the order but it took three people two trips carrying large boxes to get it out to his car.   Among lots of other things the order included 48 ‘Double Doubles’.

The guy who placed the order was ahead of me and in most restaurants such an order would have brought the place to its knees and created a huge delay for those like me who were behind him. Not at In-N-Out, however. Oh, I suppose it took a few extra minutes for them to absorb the shock wave the order sent through the process, but not much.

In N OutWhat enabled them to handle the surge that far outstripped their short term capacity were three things: Cross training, a U-shaped layout, and employee empowerment.

It was a thing of beauty to watch how everyone began to perform different jobs and to move back and forth between the various work stations. I have no idea what triggered all of the movement, but by the time the order was filled the young lady who took the order had moved back to the station where they were cooking up burgers, over the device that cuts potatoes into fries and to the small oven that customizes the fries orders, and then back to the front counter. The rest of the kids made similar moves, switching jobs seamlessly with everyone apparently capable of doing everything.

This amazing shape-shifting that looked like a cross between a ballet and an intricate football play where everyone knows their role was possible because, unlike most restaurants, the layout is U-shaped with both the drive through and inside counters at one end and everything flowing from and back to that end. The power of the U-shape is that each station is no more than a few steps from every other station, and there is a clear line of sight from each station to everything else. Without the layout it would have been cumbersome, at best, for people to move back and forth between jobs and impossible to see what the status of things was at each station – to know where they were needed to keep the flow continuously moving.

And, while I am sure someone was the boss, there was no way of knowing it by watching and listening. There was no quarterback, no choreographer telling everyone what to do and where to go. The shared purpose of everyone driven to complete orders, rather than to do some narrowly defined job and the ability to spot the work station where things were bottlenecking drove the decision making. Of course, the fact that In-N-Out pays a whole lot more than the rest of the fast food business makes this possible. They get to hire the cream of the teenage crop by paying so much more.

I have witnessed similar things in very lean plants, but rarely have I had a chance to see the flexibility and morphing effect in response to a radical, unexpected change in volume and mix handled so flawlessly. In most companies the focus on direct labor efficiency is so overarching that such a response is not remotely possible. The negative impact on short term efficiency that training requires combined with compensation schemes that pay people for individual output rather than overall process performance renders cross training nigh unto impossible. Assembly processes are laid out in straight line, assembly line schemes to maximize output, but make fluctuations in volume and mix difficult, at best, to deal with. And, of course, even when the cross training and layout are in place, cultures in which no one can make a move without orders from the boss turn the boss into the bottleneck to the detriment of customer service.

How’s this for a quick and highly effective lean training idea: Send whoever is in charge of industrial or process engineering along with the controller out to the left coast tomorrow packing the company credit card. Have them go to the In-N-Out Burger closest to the airport and order a hundred or so burgers; mix ‘em up between hamburgers, cheeseburgers and double doubles, throw in a few of them animal style; then sit back and watch what happens. Then get back on a plane and come home. If that doesn’t get them thinking about how different life can be in the plant there is no hope for them.