Bigger is Not Always Better

The scene is a board room in Atlanta, Georgia in the mid to late 1990s.  Around a long board room sit various executives of Chick-Fil-A who are involved in a long debate about the future of the company.  At that time, Chick-Fil-A’s main competitor, as viewed by the top leadership, was Boston Market.  The companies both had similar products at that time.  Boston Market had also announced a major expansion plan where their goal was to top a billion in sales by the year 2000.

This expansion caused great consternation among the leadership at Chick-Fil-A.  The debate that day was how to be bigger, how to grow.  If their main competitor was targeting sales so lofty, would they become a distant memory in the minds of the fast-casual diner?  So many different strategies were presented and discussed in that meeting.

At the end of the table sat S. Truett Cathy, the founder and CEO of Chick-Fil-A.  He seemed disengaged through most of the meeting.  Then suddenly, he began to bang his fist on the table and continued to do so until the room was quiet.  All eyes were on him as he spoke.

“You have been consumed with how to make Chick-Fil-A bigger, how to grow.  You are focusing on the wrong goal.  You need to focus on how can we make our company better.  If we are better, then our customers will demand we for us to be bigger and growth will come naturally.” 

These comments framed the direction of the company from that time on.  Chick-Fil-A became focused on how to measure their restaurants and how to improve on all areas of their business.  The obsession with growth faded away and a new focus on quality emerged.  Oh and by the way, in the year 2000, Boston Market filed for bankruptcy, and, Chick-Fil-A topped a billion dollars in sales!

Cathy’s goal established a culture of continual improvement.  What we are doing today may be fine, but I must be willing to sacrifice the sacred cows of today to be better tomorrow.  Programs, processes, and procedures that we follow religiously today, will have to change in the future.  This corporate culture has the characteristic that permeates everyone on the team to “make it better”.

Chick-Fil-A began a passion to pursue quality, from the single customer experience to larger decisions of opening stores.  At the single customer level, phrases for a team member to express thanks to a customer like “my pleasure” were initiated.  This customer focus is not lost in any restaurant.  To keep quality control, Chick-Fil-A owns every one of its restaurants and is very selective about who can open a new store. 

To keep the culture of “make it better” means that everything must be continually evaluated.  Andy Stanley once said, “only what is worth doing is worth evaluating.”  A process of continual critical evaluation in what we do is necessary to determine what steps to take to improve and what changes must be made. 

Most leaders find evaluation easy when failure hits or when the wheels fall off the wagon.  Those are the times the emergency staff meetings are called to triage the problem and find the source and solutions to fix the issue going forward.  Most leaders find it less intuitive to evaluate what is going right.  This leaves leaders’ attention to all the squeaky wheels and totally ignores things that run smoothly.  If you ignore those items that work well, you will not know how to build on the successes that you have achieved. 

If you want to establish a culture of “make it better” you need to have an open forum that allows team members to be free to express critical ideas about the organization.  Extra emphasis should be placed on new employees as once folks are part of the team for a couple of years, they become ingrained into the culture.  One idea is to have your employees do evaluations on your organization every six months for the first two years. 

Another is to look critically at both successes and failures.  If you have activities that are not worth evaluating, then perhaps you should not be doing them.  Take time to evaluate to make changes where necessary and duplicate the success where there is some.  Chick-Fil-A discovered how positive customers felt about their experiences at the restaurant when they were treated with extra kindness compared to other eateries.  As they built on this, more people brought in more revenue, which created more growth. 

Better before bigger may require the sacred cows of today to be in the BBQ tomorrow.  Encourage critical assessment of your programs and processes while embracing the mission and vision of the organization.  If there is a better way to execute on your overall mission than what you are doing now, don’t be afraid to change.