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Ray Kroc's organizational process of 'McDonaldization' and the birth of the American franchise

One of the great ironies of McDonald's is that a company whose name is synonymous with standardization was actually quite a unique invention when it was born in the mind of the great innovator and entrepreneur Ray Kroc. Kroc was so successful at patenting his formula for creating cheap, predictable burgers, fries and milkshakes that his company's golden arches became an icon of Americana. The word McDonaldization has come to refer to the extent to which "the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world," in the words of sociologist George Ritzer (Waters 1998). Rationalization, efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control, according to Ritzer, are the primary values of McDonald's, an organization which introduced the principles of scientific management to the food industry, transplanting them from factories.

Ray Kroc has been called the founding father of fast food and the franchise. However, Kroc was not initially part of the 'food' side of the restaurant industry. He sold restaurant products to cheap 'mom and pop' restaurants, diners, coffee shops, and greasy spoons (Ray Kroc, 2011, PBS). One of his clients were the McDonald brothers, two brothers who had introduced some radical new efficiency techniques into the typical drive-through format at their California burger 'joint.' At first, they had begun their establishment as a typical drive-through. The brothers had grown frustrated by the loss of dishes and silverware, and the high turnover of car hops and cooks. "The McDonalds fired all their car hops in 1948, closed their restaurant, installed a larger grill and reopened three months later with a radically new method of preparing food" (Schlosser 1998). They decided to solve the problems they were experiencing at the restaurant with greater use of standardization, predictability, and control.

Their solution to the loss of silverware was simple. The brothers "eliminated almost two-thirds of the items on the menu. They got rid of every item that had to be eaten with a knife, spoon or fork. The only sandwiches now sold were hamburgers and cheeseburgers" (Schlosser 1998). Paper and plastic dishes replaced real silverware, which also reduced cleaning time. Waiters and waitresses were replaced with cashiers and self-service, reducing the salaries that needed to be paid and rendered the difficulties of finding reliable help (the restaurant industry has always been noted for its high turn-over of employees) less onerous.

The simplicity of the menu also translated into simpler food preparation. Inspired by Henry Ford, the brothers found a way to standardize cooking. "They divided the food preparation into separate tasks performed by different workers. The guiding principles of the factory assembly line were applied to the workings of a commercial kitchen. The new division of labor meant that a worker had to be taught how to perform only one task. Skilled and expensive short-order cooks" were no longer needed (Schlosser 1998). A worker could be completely unskilled and learn how to prepare the burgers in a standardized and predictable fashion.

The principle of rationality is manifested in McDonald-ized food assembly "whereby traditional modes of thinking were being replaced by an ends/means analysis" (Keel 2010). Instead of trying to produce the best-tasting burger, the 'ends' that was the focus of the food assembly line was increasing the organization's profit margin at all costs. Efficiency was also at the core of the model: "Efficiency means the choosing of means to reach a specific end rapidly, with the least amount of cost or effort. The idea of efficiency is specific to the interests of the industry or business, but is typically advertised as a benefit to the customer" in McDonaldization (Keel 2010). However, in an efficient 'McDonald-style' operation, the customer often ends up doing more work to ensure that the organization accrues more value. Labor costs are reduced, and the customer receives a slight discount. At the beginning of the McDonald's operation, the burgers were clearly cheaper than competitor's, but after the operation began to grow to the size it is today, this value is less certain, as many customers come for the predictable taste of the burgers as much as for the value afforded by the Dollar Menu. The assembly at McDonalds is predictable, and so is the product. "Predictability refers to the attempt to structure our environment so that surprise and differentness do not encroach upon our sensibilities. Rational people need to know what to expect…A Big Mac is a Big Mac" (Keel 2010).

Ray Kroc initially visited the first McDonald's as a purveyor, but was inspired by the operation to become involved. "Without amenities, the food was priced much cheaper. The restaurant was sparkling clean, the workers were efficient, and the customers were lining up" (Ray Kroc, 2011, PBS). Interestingly enough, the McDonald brothers had never studied 'scientific management' or 'Fordism' as they had been applied in industry. Yet "they grasped the underlying principles," and because of their astute awareness of the value that standardization could convey, today "the fast-food industry's obsession with throughput has turned kitchens into small factories, changed the way millions of Americans work and transformed familiar foods into commodities that are manufactured" (Schlosser 1998).

Before McDonald's, once upon a time, meals were unique creations, even at the greasy spoons served by Kroc. After the insight of the McDonald brothers and Kroc they would become standardized products, with a comforting sameness. The principles of scientific management suggest that more workers does not necessarily mean greater productivity -- rather, through standardization, breaking down tasks into small units and minimizing the chance that the worker might make an incorrect or even extraneous, spontaneous gestures is minimized. The skills and talents of employees are not viewed as an asset. "Everything is pre-packaged, pre-measured, automatically controlled. The human employee is not required to think, just follow the instructions and push a button now and then…ovens and probes tell us when our food is done, seasoning is premixed, or the meal comes complete in one convenient package" (Keel 2010).

Even today, this standardization of food production is continually being refined and improved upon. At McDonald's around the world today, computers keep track of orders. At some McDonald's franchises, "advanced computer software not only assigns food orders to various workers in order to maximize efficiency but also predicts future orders on the basis of ongoing customer flow" (Schlosser 1998). At other establishments, not only are the burgers prefabricated, but automated condiment dispensers squeeze out precisely the right amount of special sauce onto a bun.

While other companies had applied the Henry Ford model of standardization before, Kroc's innovation was to standardize production in every McDonald that would be franchised out to local owners. Local owners would not have to create new standard operating procedures. Instead, they would be required to follow McDonald's production dictates and transplant what had impressed Kroc so much about the brother's methods of production into every satellite McDonald's around the nation, and eventually around the world. Kroc made a deal with the McDonald's brothers and "strove to establish standard procedures for every task at the restaurant" in every franchise (Ray Kroc, 2011, PBS). The burgeoning car culture of America was helpful in enabling McDonaldization to take hold. People, when traveling around the nation searching for a meal, took comfort in knowing they could get something fast, cheap, and predictable at a McDonald's restaurant.

Eventually a 'Bible' was created detailing how every menu item should be prepared. Nothing was left to chance. The first operations-and-training manual was seventy-five pages long, specifying how "hamburgers were always to be placed on the grill in six neat rows; French fries had to be exactly 0.28 inches thick" (Schlosser 1998). The manual at McDonald's today is ten times that size, and not only specifies food preparations and operations management, but also how menu items should appear and customers should be greeted (Schlosser 1998). Workers at McDonald's today are relatively expendable, since they can be easily replaced because of the production techniques. Almost no cooking takes place at McDonald's and other fast food establishments. The turnover rate in the fast food industry is 400%, yet the franchise remains wildly profitable and the McDonald's model has been copied by many other restaurant chains, even sit-down eating establishments.

However, critics contend that this alleged rationality is in fact quite irrational. "The communal meal is our primary ritual for encouraging the family to gather together every day. If it is lost to us, we shall have to invent new ways to be a family. It is worth considering whether the shared joy that food can provide is worth giving up" (Visser, 1989:42; in Ritzer, 1994:156, Cited by Keel 2010). The consequences of relying upon take-out food and making the consumption of food as easy and fast as possible has also had some 'scientific' consequences,…

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