I’ve just learned that organizational fitness and fast food are not, in fact, incompatible.

Pal’s Sudden Service, a fast food chain in Tennessee and Virginia, demonstrates the value of standard work and coaching (core principles #4 and #6, respectively, from Building the Fit Organization) in building a company that outperforms other fast food chains in speed, accuracy, customer loyalty, and employee retention. In fact, Pal’s is so good that it won a Baldrige Quality Award for its service. It serves drive-through customers four times faster than the next fastest competitor, with 10 times greater accuracy—a mistake only once in every 3,600 orders.

(Note: before you start firing off angry emails about the politics and gamesmanship involved in winning a Baldrige award, I know that the Baldrige award isn’t the be all and end all of quality, nor is it the same as a deep embrace of the Toyota Production System and lean. But as you’ll see, the company does an awful lot right in its pursuit of excellence and organizational fitness.)

The January issue of HBR has a short article on Pal’s, and the investment in employees is striking:

New employees get 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work on their own, and must be certified in each of the specific jobs they do. Then, every day on every shift in every restaurant, a computer randomly generates the names of two to four employees to be recertified in one of their jobs—pop quizzes, if you will. They take a quick test, see whether they pass, and if they fail, get retrained for that job before they can do it again. (The average employee gets 2 or 3 pop quizzes per month.)
“People go out of calibration just like machines go out of calibration,” CEO Crosby explains. “So we are always training, always teaching, always coaching. If you want people to succeed, you have to be willing to teach them.”
But the company doesn’t just test employees on their knowledge. Leaders are expected to spend 10 percent of their time on teaching, and to identify a target subject and a target student every day. Thomas Crosby, the CEO, realizes that leaders are by definition in a teaching role, so he formalizes and standardizes that responsibility.

In Building the Fit Organization, I argue that effective coaching relies upon three elements: going & seeing; showing respect; and participation. While I can’t speak to the last point in Pal’s case, it’s clear that managers go and see for themselves (it’s hard not to in a fast-food restaurant) and they clearly show respect for employees’ innate ability to learn and grow.

With the right leadership, fast food and fitness can coexist.