What do French Fries have to do with innovation in recruitment practices? Well, you’ve come to the right place to find out.
I was just reading a great post by Jason Warner from Google over on his site, meritocracy.net. He starts out his post by recounting his experience with the pleasant staff from IN-N-OUT Burger with their simple yet pleasing menu, and the recognition that IN-N-OUT must be employing some really good recruiting practices. JW goes on to compare IN-N-OUT’s laser focus to the moving target – Jobster.com, whose recent layoffs and change of focus has left some folks without jobs, and left customers/prospects, JW included, wondering what business problem Jobster.com solves. JW makes great points about the realities and subtleties of staying on the leading edge of recruiting – this post is my contribution to that conversation.
Here’s a quote from JW about IN-N-OUT to get your mouth watering:
“…I stopped by an In N Out Burger over the weekend and had a cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. The restaurant I visited is right down the road from my corporate apartment of Castro Street in downtown Mountain View, and I was amazed at the quality of the staff that was working. These people were friendly, attentive, and in genuine good spirits. It was a unique fast food experience to say the least. In N Out is doing something right when it comes to talent acquisition.
If you haven’t been there, In N Out Burger sells 6 items. That’s it. I counted. Only six: Burgers, Milkshakes (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry), Sodas, Milk, Coffee, and French Fries, as I recall. $350 million per year of these 6 items by most estimates (they are privately held so we don’t know for sure).”
What’s so innovative about a menu so lacking in variety? To answer that question you have to consider IN-N-OUT’s history:
“In 1948, the first In-N-Out Burger was founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park. Harry’s idea of a drive-thru hamburger stand where customers could order through a two-way speaker box was quite unique. In that era, it was common to see carhops serving those who wanted to order food from their car. Harry’s idea caught on and California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand was born.
The Snyder’s business philosophy was simple: “Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” These principles have worked so well over the years that they are still the company’s fundamental philosophy.“
Back in 1948, the innovation was the speaker box – who would have thought that an oft ridiculed device of our modern era would prove to be a feature that consumers found attractive. We can only assume it was the speed and convenience of drive thru service that caught people’s attention back then. But, what kept burger lovers coming back was a focus on solid business fundamentals, in the form of providing a squeaky clean burger stand and only the freshest ingredients and methods of preparation. Today, the speaker box is no longer an innovation but what is innovative, is great tasting fast-food and great service!
And what about recruiting and hiring practices?
In-N-Out pays its employees significantly more than the federally mandated minimum wage of $5.15 per hour and California’s minimum wage of $7.50 per hour — currently starting pay is a minimum of $9.50 per hour. For its full-time associates, the company offers complete employee benefits, and provides ‘fringe’ benefits in the form of annual company picnic, gifts at Christmas, the opportunity to participate in a variety of other company-sponsored activities, as well as paid holidays and paid vacations. On average, each of their 200+ store managers earn just under $100,000 annually, and have been with the company for 13 years. The restaurants are closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. It is one of the few chains to receive a positive mention in the book Fast Food Nation. In-N-Out is active in the communities it serves. Every year the company provides free burgers to participants marching in the Rose Parade, provides cans for donations, matches customer donations 3-to-1 in April for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and underwrites various fundraisers to support local charities and non-profit organizations.”
source: wikipedia, IN-N-OUT
I’ll let you be the judge of whether these specific practices would be best categorized as innovative, or simply solid business fundamentals. For me, they are often hard to separate in practice, since the ability to execute on business fundamentals is so incredibly rare.
Innovation is a culture – it doesn’t tend to happen in isolated silos (just talent acquisition or just sales for example) so it’s not surprising that IN-N-OUT has lots of innovation up its sleeve. While the burger connoisseur in me has long coveted an IN-N-OUT burger and shake, the marketer in me has always appreciated their ability to create scarcity, devout, loyal (even rabidly loyal) customers, while fostering an environment where community word-of-mouth from their happy customers was rewarded.
I’m talking specifically about IN-N-OUT’s now rather famous ‘secret menu.’
Back in the day, which in this case only goes back to the 90’s, IN-N-OUT was a state-of-mind that could only be enjoyed in Los Angeles. When L.A. transplants traveled home for the Holidays from Northern California, New York, Seattle, or other far-flung locales, their itinerary for their visit would look something like this (I’m not exaggerating – if you’ve spoken with enough people about IN-N-OUT you’ll know that this is pretty common):
- get bag from luggage claim
- go to IN-N-OUT
- head home for Thanksgiving Dinner
- visit best friend from Grade School
- Go to IN-N-OUT with friend from Grade School
These devout IN-N-OUT clients were the very community that created the secret menu. And long before the ‘secret menu’ was acknowledged on a corporate web site, before even the presence of a corporate web site, there was IN-N-OUT’s burger university where store managers were taught to live and breathe not only their core menu, but the secret one as well. Those store managers then made sure that all of their staff knew BOTH menus and that the cash registers had selections for secret burgers like the ‘3×3’ right along side their most famous menu item, The Double-Double.
IN-N-OUT, did these things because their customer focus went beyond listening to their customers, they were students of their customer. As such, they made adjustments to their menus based on observing the nuances of their clientèle. Just as JW talks in his post about being a student of business, and how he uses this focus to help him innovate in talent acquisition:
“What I have done is made a career out of observing and assessing behaviors, competencies, and the subsequent results of executive leaders with whom I’ve worked with at both large companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Google, and at the small 50-person start-up Oracle technology consulting company that my team and I helped rapidly scale in the late 1990s. I have become a student of competencies, behaviors, and their resulting impact on business results.
One of the key behaviors I see effective leaders consistently dispay is to separate the productivity from the activity in their pursuits, and winnow that down to clarify business results around a single, well-defined objective. Generally, things aren’t as complicated as we make them.”
The key that relates to innovation I’d like to pull out of JW’s comments lead me to my summary for this post:
Breakthroughs in performance often come from taking notice of some small, but terribly important characteristic or trend (think Gladwell’s Tipping Point here). IN-N-OUT’s first was the speaker box, a solution to address the explosion of the car culture that L.A. created and is still known for the world over. IN-N-OUT is like the world class surfer who pours over tidal data and weather reports as much as they study the ocean and the break of the waves before venturing in to the water the same way a pro golfer will pour over the bend of the grass on the putting surface or the surrounding terrain, knowing how it will make the ball move from left to right or vice versa before making their putt. They are students of the small, but terribly important characteristics of their trade.
To innovate in any area you can often get the jump start you need from just this kind of observation, analysis and perceiving, and a student of business looks for clues to their problems and solutions EVERYWHERE. Sure, you already attend recruiting industry events, network with colleagues, and read blogs that cater to this community like JW’s Meritocracy – but don’t get stuck in our little world of talent acquisition – for its borders, like any small community are reassuringly relevant but so well defined as to sometimes prevent new thinking.
If you’re going for innovation – you NEED new data, new exposure, new people, new networks. Perhaps an example from one of my old communities would help bring this point home:
I ran an online ad serving team for a network of 40+ web sites. I was, and remain, a student of web technology, design, online advertising, ad serving systems, and analytics among others. A few years ago, as the dotcom economy recovered, the online ad market experienced their first true widespread inventory shortage. One of the key aspects of online ad inventory is that it is perishable. Once you serve a web page with the ads that are supposed to appear on it, that inventory is GONE. In other words you are dealing with a highly dynamic format, and a perishable commodity.
All of a sudden the key topic in every ad serving newsgroup was about inventory utilization and optimization. All sorts of new practices were developed – my peers and I hired and trained dedicated inventory management personnel, and we all worked on improving our systems to better manage our perishable inventory. In the heat of all this work it occurred to me that we were trying to rewrite the book on how to manage inventory, as if we were the first to have to deal with such matters in business. I started to think of other non-internet advertising related fields that might help shed some light on our struggles.
Can you think of any?
Sure you can. The one that excited me the most was the grocery industry. Who has been dealing with the problems of efficient use of perishable inventory longer than your grocer? Food goes bad, demand ebbs and flows, annual cycles run their course, unanticipated spikes in demand occur, and through it all at the end of every day – what is not sold is tossed out, gone forever. With people starving around the world, the perfect picture of waste and lost money. What I learned from searching for information in this industry gave me new insight into the problems of inventory management, from people, who unlike me and my peers, had been dealing with these issues for their entire career, rather than a few months.
What parallels in talent acquisition can you find in the lessons of IN-N-OUT, JW’s post, or my example? Please, let me know what you think. Perhaps you can even share an example of how the subtle differences you observed, the dots you connected in a moment of shower inspiration, once helped you create an ah-hah business practice in recruiting and talent acquisition.
P.S. For JW and other Bay Area newbies, the burgers at IN-N-OUT are hard to beat, but right across the San Mateo bridge and a little north of you is a local East Bay Burger chain called Nation’s Giant Hamburgers. Their location in Alameda at 1432 Webster street is one of their oldest and Alameda is well worth exploring. Their original location was actually in San Pablo, and then Oakland’s Jack London Square, and the latter is worth a visit as well but since JLS has been strip mall-ized to some extent I enjoy the laid back working class nature of their Webster street location. Yeah, I could send you to their newest Daly City location but this is an EAST BAY institution and so that would be pure sacrilege. For my money, Nation’s make the best burgers in the Bay Area – I’ll go so far as saying that as a burger connoisseur who has sampled many hockey pucks across this great nation, that this is the best chain burger I’ve ever had, perhaps even the best ever.