An interview with Randy Fields, cofounder with his wife, Debbi, of Mrs. Fields Cookies

Fields holds well-formed opinions about how companies can use technology to help their employees deliver superior performance. As chairman of the Park City Group, a management-consulting and software-development company, he sells those ideas to well-known companies, including Burger King, Disney Stores, Home Depot, and Williams Sonoma. What are those companies buying? Inc. editor Jeffrey L. Seglin asked Fields.

Q. You've been a strong advocate for running businesses based on a clear set of rules. Some would argue that this removes the spontaneity and creativity that individuals bring to a company. But rules, you say, can set people free. Really?

A. Yes. A company--any company--is too complex for people to run or work in without rules. They're what keep us from getting mired in the mundane.

Q. Explain, please.

A. Sure, most people have a morning routine. I have one. I shower, brush my teeth, comb my hair. I do those things every morning in exactly that order. My routine is essentially a set of rules. Imagine if I didn't have a routine and I had to consider every step. Should I get up now? Should I turn off the alarm? Should I turn the shower on? How hot? In an hour, I'd be exhausted. People can't make that many decisions, so the mind creates routines--in effect, rules that take the form, "If A, then B." The rules free you to think about higher-level activities.

Q. What has this to do with business?

A. Running a business is not very efficient, because most of the people in the business end up spending so much time dealing with the rules that they don't have time to deliver great customer service. So operating and personnel manuals are written and people called managers are hired to help employees follow the rules. What's different today is that we can incorporate the rules into software, allowing technology to take over most of the routine, leaving people freer to think and be creative.

Q. About what?

A. About the things that really make the company great, like taking care of customers instead of taking inventory. Take Mrs. Fields cookie stores as an example. Every cookie-store manager has hundreds, probably thousands, of responsibilities. She's got to keep supplies on hand, get the right cookies baked just before customers want them, schedule employees, account for cash, make sure equipment is maintained, and most important, work with employees to see that every customer has a great experience. Accurate inventory is important, but it's not what makes a cookie store, or any other business, great. We want managers working with people because people make the store great--or not.

Q. Where does the technology come in?

A. The computer becomes the manager's partner. It internalizes the rules of the company and does all the routine, mundane thinking so the manager doesn't have to. Remember, if A, then B. All the computer needs to know is that A has occurred, and using the company's rules, it can calculate one or more appropriate Bs. Let's say it's a sunny Wednesday morning, and the computer, taking hourly data from the cash register, notices that the rate of sales of lemon squares is lower than normal for that particular store on that kind of day. Maybe the manager hasn't even noticed it yet, but the computer has already generated three or four suggestions for reviving lemon-square sales. The computer will also give her a revised baking schedule to reflect the changed demand. If A, then B. The manager hasn't had to spend time paging through a manual to research what the computer has told her in seconds, and she can devote her time and creativity to getting lemon-square sales up, not to rejiggering the oven schedule.

Q. So computers do the routine work of management?

A. Yes, but companies have always used technology to help managers. Usually, the computers have just recorded performance. Most information-technology systems today work like the black box on an airplane: they record what went wrong during a doomed flight or a bad day at the store. But if you recognize that much of business involves applying a set of discernable rules, you can use the technology to drive much of the business, to put it on autopilot.

Q. Computers running stores?

A. Of course not. What we want--and what we have built at Mrs. Fields--is technology that gives managers real-time information, lets them know exactly where they should be in terms of sales, production schedules, and staffing procedures, and then frees them to use their own skills and imagination to get there. That same technology also solves another huge problem that afflicts all kinds of companies. I call it "drift."

Q. What's that?

A. Drift is the slow erosion of a company's standards and values, and it's hard for any company to avoid. Early on, we opened a store in Hawaii and staffed it with two capable employees. Every day, Debbi would call the store and ask, "How are the cookies?" Invariably, the answer was, "The cookies are great! Don't worry." After five months, we paid a visit. They weren't making the kinds of cookies Debbi made at all. What had happened was "drift." Every day at that store, the people made tiny, infinitesimal changes to the cookies. In five months Debbi's original chewy cookies had become spongy cakes. You can get drift for response times, setup times, product quality, or any product or service when you allow today's deviation to become tomorrow's standard. Tiny changes can accumulate and can destroy a business.

Q. Can technology eliminate drift?

A. Yes, because we can incorporate the standards, how we do things around here, right into the computer system. So when the store computer observes that brownie sales are off or that staffing costs are high and suggests remedies, the problems it finds and the suggestions it makes are those that Debbi would find and make if she were there. That's a powerful system. Managers can take Debbi's advice or not, but there's no mistaking what the desired outcome is, and it's the same day in and day out.

Q. Debbi Fields as Big Sister?

A. No, but I'll admit that it's a paradox. Computerizing our rules has made our stores and our corporate culture not more impersonal but more humane. The technology frees employees to relate to customers and to one another. People think of computer technology as cold and depersonalizing, but we don't. It's one of the greatest tools we have for building corporate goals, vision, and understanding--which is to say, our culture, the glue that holds everything together. The computers tell managers: Here are the guidelines, here is how we do this now. You don't have to figure all that out. Your job is to implement as creatively as you know how. There's great comfort in knowing that if A occurs, someone has already figured out what the best Bs are.