Every business wants to be efficient. Economic and effective operations save money by reducing waste of all types and make customers happier, as they get what they want in less time.

You'd think that fast food restaurants would be masters at this, especially at the drive-through window. The whole point is to satisfy customers, who stay in their car because time is at a premium. But even the best national operations often fall short, at a rate that might surprise you if you're not in that industry. The underlying reasons why, though, could apply to many types of companies. Maybe even yours.

How the Fast-Food Kings Measure Up

QSR Magazine (it stands for quick-serve restaurant, an industry term) undertakes an annual performance study of drive-through operations. This year it looked at a benchmark group of chains--McDonald's, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's, Krystal, and Taco Bell--that it says are particularly good at drive-through service.

Although QSR examines a number of factors, we'll concentrate on speed and accuracy, because they drive efficiency. The more time it takes to do something, the higher your labor costs, and the more potential there is to dissatisfy the customer. The less accurate the work, the more time and cost to rectify the mistake and the greater the chance you lose the customer.

Here's how the chains' accuracy rates measured up:

  • Chick-fil-A: 92.4%
  • Taco Bell: 91.2%
  • McDonald's: 90.9%
  • Wendy's: 89.9%
  • Burger King: 83%

That may sound good until you flip the numbers and think of them slightly differently. The top performer was wasting time and disappointing almost eight customers out of 100, which is roughly one out of 13. The worst had a problem one out of every six times. And these were the industry's top performers.

The fastest performer, Wendy's, got people through lines in about 130 seconds on the average, or more than two minutes. The slowest, Burger King, took longer than 200 seconds. The overall average was 172 seconds, or bordering on three minutes. Taking between two to three minutes to get an order to someone is certainly quicker than a sit-down restaurant could typically do. But when you consider how much money these chains pour into creating efficient assembly lines, it no longer seems like stellar performance.

Apply the Same Idea to Your Business

The point here is not to debate how to best run a fast food franchise, but to understand how easily a business can disappoint customers. When was the last time you tried to measure your operational efficiency or speed to satisfy a customer? If it's been a long time--like never--it's time to take a look.

Perhaps you have too complex a set of of offerings, a factor that slowed performance at the chains. Maybe your business processes are byzantine. It could be that you have unmotivated employees who see no reason to hustle.

Whatever the cause, looking at speed and accuracy in any business is a way to uncover fundamental weaknesses in your operations that could drive customers into the arms of your competitors.