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April 3, 2016

Manufacturing: Fine Dining or Fast Food?

by mikediliberto

A continuation and refinement of the ideas presented in last week’s spellbinding, food-based perspective on outsourced manufacturing. What I want to talk about today is the different perspectives that exist between fast-food and fine-dining restaurants and how these perspectives inform our techniques in managing a global manufacturing footprint. And hamburgers; I always seem to work those into my story.

I still remember my first McDonalds hamburger.  I had a birthday party at the McDonalds Play Place, a playground which was, I believe, mostly responsible for the boom in tort law profits in the US during the 1980s.  But after a good thrashing on the merry-go-round and climbing up the Hamburgler a few times, that happy meal tasted really good.  I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but more impressively, it tasted just like ever other happy meal served at any of McDonalds thirty-five thousand retail locations.

Ray Croc, founder of McDonalds, was once quoted saying that he aimed “not to make the best hamburger you’ve ever had, but the same hamburger you’ve always had”.  This was a revolution in hamburger preparation, but really all Croc did was apply production-line manufacturing methodologies to food instead of fords.  Thirty-five thousand restaurants around the world, all making fundamentally the same hamburger, and not a single chef required at any of them.

When you’re churning out thousands or millions of the same item, the investment in design-for-manufacture, QA, QC, and continuous improvement pays off dramatically.  I once estimated that Apple spends about one hundred and twenty-five Million Dollars setting up production for each new iPhone; considering that Apple sells over two hundred million iPhones annually, this cost is more than justified.  I mean, have you ever seen a badly made iPhone?

If you are making tens of thousands or more units, the process for controlling quality is well documented.  As long as you know what to check, how to check and what to do in the case of non-conformity, you can manage quality in mass production.

Our challenge lies in that so many of our production runs are project based, built to order, or otherwise customized in ways that preclude us from spending the time or effort to put together a well-defined quality process.  Early in my career I fell prey to the seductive simplicity of thinking that mass-production process could be adapted to project based manufacturing.  I’ve heard the lament many times; A short run of a few hundred or a thousand pieces gets made wrong and suddenly the customer is in a bind.

“How could this happen” They ask.  “The factory has QC staff, lots of them!”

“Yeah, but what are they checking?”

“The quality”

I take a deep breath.

“I get that part.  But when they look at your products, what are they checking them against? Do you think that QC person knows innately every product in the world, and what it is supposed to look like, how it should look, and what it does? what documentation did you give them to use in performing their checks?”

Usually, after long pause, it finally clicks.


It’s at this point that most people realize that they’re not running a McDonalds but rather a fine dining restaurant. In such a situation, the decisions about how to cook the food are made not by following a ten-step cooking process but rather by having a talented chef that can adjust the recipe during preparation to control the output.

In my totally unbiased opinion, I believe that my mother makes fantastic food. When I was younger I attempted to quantify her recipes, so that I could try my hand at making them. Like many talented chefs, she uses feelings more than weights and measures.  I was not deterred; I even went so far as to weigh each of the ingredients before and after to divine the magic formula.  The trouble was, the recipe changes every time; saltier tomatoes demand less salt be added.  Milder garlic means we add a little more garlic to punch up the flavor.  You get the idea.

As industrial designers and project managers building products in China, we become the Chefs in our (albeit strange) version of a fine dining restaurant. We spend our time on the production line, adjusting the recipe as our production progresses.  How does it look? What is the color like? Are all of the fasteners tightened? There are so many variables that by the time we would define a test for all of them, the production run would be over.  In addition, there are just some things you cannot measure; when it’s your creation you “just know” when something is right or wrong, often in a way that are hard to explain or quantify.

So many people that I meet in our industry lament the constant need for westerners within their Chinese operations. They often see this need as a failure to properly define recipes for their products; but yet these key westerners bring with them the ability to span boundaries in ways that few others can (at least the westerners that have had long-term success in China).  They stand with one foot in China, understanding (hopefully) how to work with suppliers and get the right production output and with the other foot in their home country, with all of the knowledge of the brand and consumer expectation, an internal set of taste buds, if you will, that allow these westerners to make thousands of adjustments on the supplier’s production line that in the end allows them to deliver production that meets the customer’s expectations.  This feedback loop is fundamental to the success of a project and at the same time, extremely hard to distill down into pre-determined steps or decision trees.

Whether we are cooking food or outsourcing production, the most important thing to know is what type of manufacturing (or cooking) it is that you are engaged in.  If you’re seeking to mass produce many identical items, then the methods for building a system that turns out millions of identical products are well documented.  If you’re turning out custom products that change by the day or week or month, then understand that, like a fine dining restaurant, it’s very hard to “systemize” the creation of great food. Instead the focus should be on finding, hiring, and retaining the talented staff that will enable your production to be successful.

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