McDonalds and Another Major Paradigm — Reliability vs. Validity


Starship Rock, White Sand Lake, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

In Roger Martin’s great book, The Design of Businessan excellent quick read, an influence on this blog as well as a great complement, he talks about the evolution of business as moving from mystery -> heuristic -> algorithm along a knowledge funnel.  One of the examples he uses to illustrate this is the formation of McDonalds.  McDonalds started with a paradigm shift.  Without getting too far into the weeds of ‘who came up with what first’ — there are excellent histories of fast food you can dig up — the founder of McDonalds, the McDonald brothers, started their restaurant with the idea (the mystery) that people would rather walk into a restaurant and quickly order from a limited menu, than be serviced by car hops on skates while sitting in their car and ordering off an extensive menu.  As the company evolved, heuristics were placed in the expanded franchise model, pioneered and influenced by Ray Croc, which then led to more algorithmic thinking (how to refine the temperature of the inside of a hamburger, how to guarantee freshness of buns, etc.)  All this has made a McDonalds hamburger (or Big Mac) one of the most reliable experiences one can have on the planet.  You go into McDonalds, you order a Big Mac, and you pretty much know what you’re going to taste.

But as organizations evolve (actually, develop Scaffolding, or potentially devolve) to provide reliability, they can lose their validity — the reason an organization was created in the first place.  Validity is characterized by the Guiding Principle for the organization in the first place.  In McDonalds’ situation, the larger question, as the firm continues its decline is this:  what do you do when people don’t want to eat hamburgers any more?

The answer is “it depends.”

There are some interesting things to note in the above example, as it gives plenty of clues to the evolution of social structure in the context of McDonalds.  At the beginning of McDonalds’ existence, we see variable, and unpredictable time scales.  As heuristics were developed, we start to see the emergent beginnings of the various silos necessary for more optimal performance.  As reliability became more and more of a focus at McDonalds, we can also see that smaller and smaller spatial and temporal scales become more important.  The ‘time to cook’, the precision of temperature, the freshness of buns, the latency of time for fries in the warmer — all must be controlled in order to assure uniformity.

And as an organization becomes more and more driven by these types of things, and more accountants are hired, and MBAs, we can also see that the response of the organization to prompted change will be more and more additive.  Instead of making large changes in how one cooks a hamburger, the organization is much more likely to trend toward process refinement, and incremental improvement.  The appearance of single discipline experts, who can reliably, for example, program cooking strategies, becomes more prevalent.  Unless these experts are involved empathetically with other parts of the supply chain/production process, they are likely to become more and more isolated in their communication chains.  I really have no intrinsic knowledge of McDonalds’ organizational chart — but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were various ‘Czars’ around the organization, in charge of a variety of the elemental tasks of hamburger preparation.

And in the franchise model, the end user of the technology is necessarily isolated from the top — you sign up for a franchise, you sign up for doing things the McDonalds way.  McDonalds even has a Hamburger University — its primary training facility in Illinois — to reinforce its social/relational structure.

What does all this mean from a v-Meme perspective?  Though not exactly the first, the McDonald brothers had a visionary, empathetic epiphany regarding people and the acceleration of society.  It’s hard to say whether this was from a larger, emergent/intuitive Communitarian v-Meme perspective (probably!) or a true, self-aware Global Holistic breakthrough. Regardless, spinning out the rest of the v-Meme story was basically developing the appropriate v-Meme Scaffolding for the idea.  Heuristics were developed as far as sizing, decor, etc.  And then increased traffic led to the need for developed algorithms for production of consistent product.

But along the way, the bottom scaffolding started taking over the top.  Instead of preserving a spirit of innovation, and worker development, McDonalds made a choice to mechanize and disempower the bottom of their organization.  Fast food workers, regardless of the truth of the imagery, are associated with the very bottom of the labor hierarchy.  Insulting comments regarding English majors and ‘would you like fries with that?’ are the gold standard for the ostensible worthlessness of a liberal arts degree.  And with any fundamentally Authoritarian v-Meme organization, where status, power and control are the marquee behaviors, you have the potential for corruption.

What does the death of empathy inside a company mean?  In a world where nothing changes, the Authoritarian/Legalist v-Meme conflation can take you a long way.  But in a rapidly changing landscape, screwing over the bottom of the food chain (no pun intended) is a very bad idea indeed.  You can create conditions that produce the same hamburger every time.  But you’ll never produce anything else.  You absolutely have to have information flow both vertically and horizontally.  And you can’t get that without appropriate empathetic development.

Where is this leading?  The natural dichotomous perspective would lead one to think that there is a trade-off between reliability and validity.  But at this point, it is important to remember the emergent dynamic principles of evolutionary, empathetic thinking.  Validity, being more a function of higher empathetic modes (Performance/Goal-based v-Memes and above) can contain the structures of reliability inside it.  But in order to do this, leadership — or those that have the ability to influence organizational structure and develop organizational culture — must be self-aware to the trade-offs present when making developmental decisions.  Sometimes you need to hire an expert in internal hamburger temperature control, and everyone has to listen to them — after all, you don’t want people coming down with E coli while eating your product.  But one should be aware of the integration requirements of keeping that person in the loop with everyone else in the organization, and establishing the duplex communication channels necessary to assure consistent evolution.

Takeaways:  If nothing changes in your world, you can set up an organization that dumps empathy and repeats the same process over and over, and if you’re making money at the beginning, you’ll be making money at the end.  But that’s not the real world.  Empathetic development, if scaffolded correctly, can drive both reliability and validity — which combined, create resilience.

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