McDonald’s Recipe for Success

McDonald’s USA, LLC, is famous for its burgers and fries. But last year, its training organization made a name for itself with learning programs that ensure its customers continue to receive the level of product and service they have come to expect.

By Margery Weinstein

Who isn’t familiar with McDonald’s? Its golden arches are among the most recognizable brand icons in the U.S. What many are less familiar with is the methodical and distinguished learning and development that supports that brand. Training that begins by preparing employees to serve customers at the counter, and extends to programs that help individuals launch their own franchise, is a key to McDonald’s 50-plus-year success story. Last year, the company kicked it up a notch with improved restaurant leadership training, sharpened people selection and processes, and refined coaching and mentoring practices.

Capstone Coursework

Last year, McDonald’s U.S. Training, Learning and Development team partnered with Owners/Operators and Operations Leadership to develop the curriculum for Restaurant Department Management, says Vice President of U.S. Training Diana Thomas. “This is a new and holistic management approach to enable managers to consistently run great restaurants,” she points out.

Three new department manager roles were created to support the changing needs of business operations, all reporting to the restaurant’s general manager. The curriculum design includes innovative approaches, such as Leaders as Teachers, a test-out feature, e-learning, coaching guides, verifications, and virtual collaborations. The department manager curriculum culminates in the Department Manager Capstone simulation, in which teams work together to efficiently run a restaurant in a safe and realistic two-day immersive simulation. “The Department Manager Capstone class,” Thomas notes, “has been a key element in Restaurant Department Management implementation, which has resulted in positive improvements to key business metrics.”

The creation of the Department Manager Capstone class illustrates McDonald’s systematic learning operations. “The entire Restaurant Department Management curriculum,” says Thomas, “was developed through an alignment process that U.S. Training, Learning and Development strives for with every project—early involvement with operations leaders leading to highly effective learning solutions.”

Homing In on Operations

The creation of the Department Manager Capstone class is no exception. The cornerstone of McDonald’s training is its operations, Thomas explains. “Operations has always been, and will continue to be, our core business and the foundation of McDonald’s success,” she says. “As our restaurants continue to evolve to meet customer needs, our learning and development function must anticipate, adapt, and react quickly. We, therefore, bring outstanding operations performers—those who know our business, and have a track record of effectively teaching others in the field—on board to teach at Hamburger University (HU) in Oak Brook, IL, or to lead deployment efforts and serve as subject matter experts within U.S. Training, Learning and Development.”

These leaders join the team of professional training design, development, and administrative group that are the core of the department. Additionally, there are more than 200 members of the training team located in 22-plus regions, ensuring that the standards for consistency and top performance are met across the country.

Thomas says regularly adding this top talent to the ranks of the U.S. training team benefits students in every class, but it also creates McDonald’s biggest challenge: Given that historically one-third of the training team rotates each year, the company must have an effective strategy and model for doing this. Organizational and individual development, as well as continuous performance improvement, is focused on these key areas: top talent selection and development; effectiveness of the environment; work that is customer centric; and measurement of execution and results.

National Hiring Day

New hires are the lifeblood of any organization, but never more so than at McDonald’s. In just one year, through October 2011, the company hired more than 60,000 new U.S. crew members—the vast majority of them in a single week around its first-ever National Hiring Day in April 2011 (about half that many were hired in a typical year prior to 2011). Year to date, McDonald’s has received nearly 600,000 applications via its nationwide
online application network. This application site has received more than 5 million hits.

Those numbers highlight the significant portion of McDonald’s learning and development customer base that new hires comprise. “Assessing their needs accurately is a critical step to defining a learning strategy that is aligned with McDonald’s U.S. Plan to Win strategies and goals,” says Thomas. “We begin with a macro-level assessment of the learning population and customer expectations and proceed to a micro-level assessment of performance needs to determine appropriate learning and performance interventions.”

Highlights of the ways the company is addressing this challenge include incorporating the results of its Future Learner Study into program development and developing and implementing performance support for its incoming workforce.

Tackling Turnover

Turnover across all levels of McDonald’s employees has decreased consistently since mid-2007 when the training components of McDonald’s People Migration Strategy first were deployed, Thomas says. “Reduced turnover of crew and hourly managers became primary success measures of our enhanced training initiatives,” she notes. Late 2010 saw the deployment of Restaurant Department Management, the company’s restructured management approach. In 2011, McDonald’s launched the new curriculum for restaurant general managers, a two-semester blended learning curriculum that culminates with a five-day capstone simulation at Hamburger University.

Serving Leadership Development

As the day-to-day leaders on the front line, shift managers are taught key skills necessary to lead and motivate crew to achieve shift targets such as communication and coaching. Department managers within Restaurant Department Management learn and apply McDonald’s leadership competencies throughout their curriculum and participate in a two-day Department Manager Leadership Capstone class. In this leadership-focused course, they apply such skills and behaviors as holding their teams accountable for achieving business results and applying best practices. The General Manager Curriculum teaches participants to apply leadership behaviors, lead their restaurant, and develop their department managers. They learn to create and execute business plans that build the business and analyze performance measures. During the five-day General Manager Capstone at the company’s Hamburger University, participants learn to think and perform in ways that improve their restaurant’s performance.

“At the staff level, our performance development system is based on performance drivers considered key to leadership, with training and performance reviews aligned around eight leadership competencies and expected behaviors for each level,” Thomas says. “Individual development plans, created in collaboration with the boss, map out leadership training in support of one’s performance and career goals.” In addition, directors and officers have access to leadership development programs and resources designed to ensure McDonald’s leaders have the skills, knowledge, and competencies required to successfully drive strategies and achieve business results. For example, McDonald’s Leadership Institute provides leaders with access to workshops and information about leadership skills, development planning, networking, and external development resources. Its Accelerated Leadership Development Programs for high-potential directors and officers focus on personal growth, driving results through team performance and building leadership depth, while its Officer Development Program comprises workshops focused on increasing business acumen.

Cooking Up a Culture

Thomas says the company’s senior leadership demonstrates its commitment to the learning and development function in a variety of important and visible ways. “People practices” are key drivers of 10 of the 15 strategic milestones stated in McDonald’s 2011-2013 Plan to Win, and U.S. Training, Learning and Development is a driving force behind McDonald’s People Migration Strategy and other people initiatives. “For that reason,” says Thomas, “U.S. Training, Learning and Development continues to be ‘at the table’ at all times.” Top management provides public recognition for the work learning professionals do, and the department and its staff have received numerous internal awards.

Training leaders regularly communicate with the rest of the company in a variety of venues and media, including major leadership meetings, strategic system-wide communications, and McDonald’s monthly Restaurant Managers’ magazine. Along with those efforts, Training, Learning and Development participates in McDonald’s USA cross-functional, high-profile national teams.

Employee Development

It’s true that McDonald’s U.S. Training, Learning & Development is committed to drive the U.S. Plan to Win by designing, delivering, and deploying the most effective, accessible training, grounded in their operating standards. But to truly bring their vision to life, they’ve added a new goal: to become one of McDonald’s healthiest teams. Team members set healthy choice goals, share with each other, and then celebrate each other’s achievements. One-quarter of the learning staff accomplished something they never thought possible: starting and finishing the 26-mile Chicago Marathon.

A Side of “McDMentoring”

Mentoring has always been an integral part of McDonald’s approach to developing employees and promoting a continuous learning culture, says Thomas. The McDMentoring program gives employees the opportunity to build their confidence and competence through informal and formal mentoring. “With heightened emphasis on talent management, even more resources have been allocated to employee networks and to the growth of our people and our brand,” Thomas notes.

Every learner is assigned a coach at every step of development, and the Restaurant Department Management curriculum contains virtual collaboration components to encourage networking and enable managers to learn from each other.

Firing Up the Leadership Pipeline

“Elevating talent management is a focus area of our strategic Plan to Win,” says Thomas. Dimensions of McDonald’s talent management initiatives include: career guidance for crew and managers; executive coaching; succession planning; and a college degree connection program. Restaurant managers and above earn college credit recommend ations for all management curriculum through the American Council on Education. College partnerships help them to make the connections they need to complete their educational goals.

Like its leadership pipeline, the future of McDonald’s as a whole is focused on growth. Thomas says that over the next few years the company’s learning professionals will aid its leadership team with capturing even more market share in a flat to declining industry; meeting the demand for talent; and evolving the company’s People Migration Strategy.

“Given the success of our current U.S. Plan to Win and the learning strategy in place to support it,” Thomas says, “we are well-positioned to continue building on our strengths to meet our business’ challenges head on.”

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.