Biz Tips: Flipping Burgers (Training programs for contractors)

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By Jim Hinshaw

Just heard of a hamburger joint that is known for developing the skills of the employees to unheard of levels. In fact, their training is so good they have won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, putting them in the same group as Ritz Carlton, Cadillac and Federal Express. The CEO, Thomas Crosby, who has been with the chain since 1981 tells us that they are in the education business, and they want their employees to be the equivalent of valedictorians. That is the goal they set to beat the competition.

Their training program starts with how to iron the uniform (really?), and moves on to each process they work with in the restaurant. Each employee is certified and recertified on each machine. When they are re-tested, if they don’t score 100%, they are off that machine. Each person in a leadership role spends 10% of their time helping another employee master a skill, it is a well-defined system.

They took the dedication to a new level a few years ago, when they were awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, given by the President Bush in 2001. Part of the tradition that goes with that award is that the recipient agrees to share their business practices with others to help them improve quality. So out of that the Pals Business Excellence Institute (BEI) was born. It is a school where the participants pay from $350 for a half day to $900 for 2 days. In the 2 days they visit a real operating Pals restaurant, go behind the counter to watch the crews work, see how a team can make a difference in speed and delivery. The school is run on a break-even basis, many attendees return year after year to refresh. One of those returnees is Ken Shiller from K & N Management (Rudy’s “Country Store” & Bar-B-Q and Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries, and Shakes, located in Texas), who has brought his management team to BEI many times. They attribute over $10 million dollars in annual sales growth to the techniques learned from BEI, and won the Malcolm Baldrige award themselves.

Pals was started in 1956 by Pal Barger, they now employ over 900 people, have only gone through 7 general managers in the last 33 years, has a turnover rate that is half their nearest competitor, and average a customer complaint once in every 3500 transactions. Crosby says he wants the experience that each employee has at Pal’s to last them a lifetime, and no matter if they are a doctor or chemical engineer, the things they learned at Pal’s still apply today.

My question (and you knew it was coming) is this: does your company have a training program for each employee? Are they tested and re-tested on their specific job? Do they help the other employees as part of their duties? Do they know how to iron their uniforms? What are you doing different than the competition to train and keep employees, and help them succeed in a competitive environment. Hamburgers are somewhat of a commodity: some meat, a bun, mustard and relish. Commodities are bought and sold at the lowest price. What makes the difference at Pal’s is the service and quality control they bring to a commodity.

Our business is, and should be, completely customized. We have to buy plumbing fixtures, water and sewer lines, water heaters and install them with all manufacturer, state and local codes complied with, then and only then will they get the health, safety and performance they paid for in the system. No two systems are exactly alike, even if the homes are the same. A different family lives in the home, so things like hot water needs, fixture details, decorating tastes and utility bills pay different roles in what the customer wants and needs. In fact, we offer some of the best looking fixtures in the home, no one ever shows off their new furnace, it may be in the attic.

One of the topics that come up all across the nation is how do we find and attract good employees to join our team. The answer, make the team better than the competition, train them better, let them know more is expected, pay them better, they will come. So set up a training program for your company, follow the example of Pal’s. and if you get into Tennessee or Kentucky, stop by a store, get a meal, watch them perform.

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