In the early 1990s, my business partner and I owned a chain of Pizza Hut restaurants in Ireland.
Reckoning ourselves to be great innovators, we spent around $50,000 (to us, an enormous sum at the time) on state-of-the-art "ordering units." These were, essentially, wireless hand-helds that enabled our waitstaff to take orders at the table and send them instantaneously back to the kitchen, where tickets would be printed out telling our cooks what pizzas to make.
These gizmos, bleeding edge as they were at the time, worked flawlessly. Too flawlessly, in fact.
The orders got to the kitchen so fast that if a customer changed the order even seconds after it had been transmitted, the originally ordered pizza would already be under construction back in the kitchen. Even though changed orders represented a small percentage of total income, our losses due to food waste went through the roof.
The kitchen staff was dumping unwanted thin-crust pepperonis to make, say, stuffed-crust ham and mushroom--and in a business run by margin control, this was a cost we simply couldn't afford.
Trial, Error, and the Unexpected Solution
For weeks, we (the management) tried everything we could to stanch this mistake. First, we had the kitchen staff wait five minutes before starting a new order, but it just caused chaos, as cooks squinted at tickets to see the timestamp and then did the mental arithmetic for when to start making them. So then, we tried telling the customers to be "sure" about their orders. That worked for about five minutes. Then, we asked the waitstaff to delay sending in the order, but that didn't work, because the technology wouldn't process multiple orders at one time.
Eventually, in frustration, we called the staff together at our flagship restaurant to tell them we were going to junk the technology and go back to the old way of taking orders--handwritten slips that made their way back to the kitchen at a more sedate pace and which allowed for more flexibility with customer changes. Adopting the technology was a mistake.
But just as the meeting was coming to an end, one of our waitstaff piped up from the back of the room.
"Have them hit send," she said.
"Give the hand-held to the customer, and let them hit Send after they've placed their order," she explained.
Brilliant! And that's what we did.
We turned the order-submission process into a little bit of restaurant theater, complete with explanations that their order would "begin baking the moment they hit the button!" The customers loved it, and they got the subliminal message--once you hit Send, there's no going back.
And although it didn't eradicate 100% of the order-change issue, our food-waste cost dropped to a manageable level.
And I learned two things that I have stayed true to ever since:
1. When you have a problem, don't expect the so-called smart guys in the C suite to fix it.
Talk immediately with the employees who most have to deal with the problem every day.
2. If you can make it fun, customers will put up with a lot.
Think of the extremely long wait lines at Disney rides.