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Construction Role Models: 5 Lessons Construction Can Learn from the Fast Food Industry

From standardization to leveraging big data, here’s what construction can learn from fast food powerhouses.

Fast food is so ubiquitous in our culture that we barely notice its presence. We drive by well-known institutions each and every day, filtering out the golden arches and the smiling stars as if they’re merely more road noise.

But the fact that we’ve been well-conditioned to the presence of this all-pervasive industry can blind us to a simple but important fact: The reason fast food restaurants are everywhere is that their business model really works.

Now, we’re not claiming that they serve the best grub or that the industry has had a perfect track record of business decisions. Nevertheless, there are many approaches and strategies that have been working for the fast food industry that can be adopted for our jobsites.

That’s the goal of this series, after all.

Series, you say? Indeed.

This is the inaugural post in Construction Role Models, in which we will take a look at the industries, companies and trends that are working (and a few that aren’t working) with an eye to what they can teach us about construction. The building industry, after all, is suffering from a shortage of workers and rising building costs, not to mention antiquated technologies and overall stagnation. While there has been incredible progress in recent years, there’s a long road ahead for construction to catch up to implementing a vast range of cutting-edge practices. While construction is a sector unique in its nature that needs its own set of best practices and standards, we hope our series provides some thought-providing ideas to learn from other industry giants.  

Without further ado, here are five lessons construction can learn from fast food.

1. Standardization

Before you make the mistake of assuming that fast food and construction exist on such different timescales that a comparison is impossible, consider this quote from Unleashed: “On the whole, the food industry involves substantial amounts of food, produced in large batches. It requires long lead times and has variability with the different growing seasons and products. The variability continues with each product since every product has a different rate of expiration.”

The challenges inherent in seasonal produce, large batches of food, expiration dates and preparing massive amounts of food in coordination are all very real. In construction, consider the mass coordination needed for volatile construction materials in addition to organizing teams to execute at just the right moment. This necessitates some major standardization.

When it comes to standardizing, there are two fundamental factors: products and technologies. The products stem from the new technologies allowing us to make them, while new products enable us to create ever-more-refined technologies. It’s a virtuous cycle that we must prioritize if we want to succeed in the building industry, and elsewhere.

Standardize Products

You’ve probably heard that a Big Mac is a Big Mac from Mobile, Alabama to Shanghai, China. No matter where you buy it, that’s the case. There might be different words written on the package; you might pay for it with different currency; you might see unfamiliar sights out the window. But when you buy that Big Mac, you will know what you are getting.

This is not a claim construction can make. True, each construction project is unique. We would not want to apply the Big Mac approach to every building. One need look no further than the derogatory phrase “McMansion” to know that unique design, high-quality materials and classic styles are still very much prized–and low-quality knock-em-out jobs are a problem. However, the building industry could certainly stand to learn from the standardized processes and products of the fast food industry.

You can think of each restaurant like a factory. There is a manager who oversees dozens of workers on various shifts. He tracks inventory and supplies and runs a constant assembly line of carefully quality-controlled food cranking out at extremely high volumes. That’s hard to do well, and the secret is standardized products on which that manager can rely. When they don’t have to think about the quality, they can rely on a much better product and spend their energy on other aspects of the franchise.

via GIFER

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The analog in construction is prefabrication, where building components are made elsewhere to highly standardized specifications, then delivered to the jobsite. This is an exact comparison to fast food restaurants, where the food is made elsewhere to a specific recipe, then brought on site for assembly and sale.

Of course, to standardize products, it helps to standardize technologies as well.

Standardize Technologies

By standardizing technologies, you receive a raft of benefits. Consider Domino’s, which designed an online platform for ordering and delivery, coupons and loyalty program. When it pushed this new tech out, a lot of its franchisees resisted. However, Domino’s remained firm and eventually proved to its partners that the future was here–and it was beneficial. Now everyone uses it, making it easier for customers to order and the pizza giant to reap the profits.

Standardizing technologies in construction is equally important. When everyone uses the same communication platform, no one gets left out. Workers, managers and stakeholders are always on the same page, making it easier for the company to meet goals and make moolah.

2. Lean Production

As its name suggests, lean production focuses on simultaneously maximizing the available space of a facility or site, while minimizing waste.

That is exactly what successful fast food companies do. Nothing exists inside a fast food restaurant that will not reliably get sold. Fast-food kitchens are small; you can see most of them in their entirety from the counter. But they produce enormous outputs of food in that cramped space because they are such well-oiled machines (no pun intended).

McDonald’s, for instance, strikes the perfect balance between low waste and fast delivery. It prepares the ingredients for its sandwiches–meat, lettuce, condiments, buns–separately, but doesn’t combine them until ordered. When it used to pre-prepare sandwiches, they got soggy and went to waste, which didn’t look (or taste) satisfactory to customers. Now, they can still get an order out in a hurry, but without producing soggy extras that no one wants.

The lean production fast food has adopted can provide similar benefits for construction. Lean construction, wherein we maximize space and limit waste, leads to increased quality of products and better timelines. Moreover, it reduces operating costs and smooths operations on an everyday basis. By limiting the on-site materials and tasks to the ones necessary for the immediate project, construction can attain the same high marks as other fast food powerhouses.

3. Innovate-or-Die Mindset

Capitalism has proven again and again that innovate or fail is the law of the land. Yet despite this, many companies find a comfortable resting place and tend to stay there. Instead of pushing the boundaries, they stagnate. When looking at 500 of the top construction companies from 1965, Kiewit Technology Group found that 450 of those were not in business. The reason? Ninety perfect faltered because they refused to embrace change and innovation to take on increasing project demands.

What not all construction companies realize is that an innovate-or-fail mindset isn’t optional. If you don’t have one, then when a challenge arrives, you won’t have the tools to meet it.

Take Domino’s again. They hit rock bottom in 2008 and 2009. Their sales were suffering, and they were getting beat out by competition. That’s when they decided to jump to digital.

via GIPHY

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“The results were immediately positive,” reports Exalt Solutions. “The first quarter after launching their digital initiatives, same-store sales were up 14.3%, the largest quarterly same-store sales jump ever recorded by a major fast-food chain.” Their annual global digital sales hit the $2-billion mark less than 5 years later, 35% of which stemmed from mobile devices. Come 2016, that number had jumped to 50%.

Domino’s survived, quite simply, because it already had people in place before the crisis hit who would push boundaries rather than wallow in same-old. Construction needs to bring such people on board, or any crisis could be the last one.

4. Leveraging Big Data

Leveraging big data has been a hot trend in recent years for big business. The ability to leverage the firehose that is data lends businesses a huge edge, and the fast food industry is no exception.

“The Cheesecake Factory, with more than 180 restaurants in 175-plus locations across the U.S. and three licensed locations in the Middle East, has … started leveraging big data analytics to provide better food and a better customer experience,” says QSR Magazine, by way of example. This works for them because, “with the right analytical tools and techniques to sieve through data and draw actionable insights,” they can understand what’s happening, why it’s happening and what might happen next.

Prediction is critical. Companies that utilize data to predict trends and risks in the future always outperform their competitors, because they have the benefit of that critical preparation time. It’s impossible to achieve this without analysis, though, points out QSR: accumulating and sifting through data becomes “futile if companies discount the importance of real-time decision-making on the basis of insights generated. This is perhaps the most critical part of the whole analytics equation.”

Construction can tap into that same power of data to learn more about project performance and how to optimize for better efficiency and quality down the road. If you’d like to learn more about how to collect data about projects and put it to good use, feel free to check out our guide on the subject.

5. Solving the Logistical Puzzle

With the emergence of new consumer-driven delivery systems like DoorDash, UberEats and mobile ordering, fast food restaurants had to learn to account for increased coordination between their employees, customers and external influencers.

Similar to fast food companies facing space limitations in their kitchens and parking lots, jobsites with an increasing number of project stakeholders need to know how to manage the logistics of the daily kerfuffle. This requires better tracking technology of the supply chain, sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as increased communication between people on site.

via Gfycat

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According to the Aeris blog, “The low cost and relatively simple deployment process of IoT-enabled devices mean virtually any restaurant or delivery service can offer smart delivery.”

In addition to optimizing the logistics of its consumer delivery solutions, the fast food restaurant industry has also found great success in implementing IoT technology into its supply chain. Construction is beginning to utilize smart sensors and tech into its supply chain, but it’s still in its infancy stages.

Learning from Our Construction Role Models: More Lessons to Come

Fast food also has some lessons to learn, and each year brings new changes to its doorstep. The increasing demands from consumers and regulatory bodies for healthy foods, the changing tastes of customers and the negative image problems seemingly associated with all things “fast” will likely plague this industry for a while.

However, even there, construction can learn. Fast food’s business model has persisted with a tenacity that wows. In our digital age of booms and busts and bubbles, fast food marches on. Each wave of innovation makes it bend, but never quite knocks it over–and the big brands we know and love always rise again.

If we want that kind of resilience for construction, we can start with these lessons today.

Stay tuned for our next edition of “Construction Role Models” on our blog. In the next edition, we dive into lessons construction can learn from the fashion industry. Have an industry you’d for us to draw inspiration from in a future post of this series? Share with us in the comments below!

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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