When I say "growth hacking," you probably think of startups, not fast food chains. As someone with a great deal of experience in both, let me just say, the best growth hackers are the ones you buy your lunch from.

Since 2006, Chipotle has hacked its way to over $4 billion in new growth, emerging as the go-to lunch spot for Millennials and young professionals. As a guy with a thing for burritos, I've spent a lot of time studying their methods, and taken away 3 key growth hacks Chipotle uses that you can apply to any business.

1. Trust Processes Over People

Chipotle puts your burrito together assembly-line-style. At particularly busy times of day, Chipotle may have one person on tortillas, one on meat, another on salsas, a fourth on guacamole duty, and a final person running the register. Assuming no workers swap out as you order, you can expect to talk to a minimum of 5 people for that burrito.

With all these people engaging in what is essentially a game of burrito-telephone, you would think it'd be easy to pull one over on them. If you were to ask for extra meat, there's a solid chance that information would not make it all the way to the register, right?

Wrong. Chipotle has a process for every single action. When you order double meat, the person handling your protein puts two little x's on your burrito's foil. Guac gets a "G". Anything extra gets a mark so that the person on the register knows what to charge you.

If you want to grow your business quickly (and make sure no one's getting extra steak for free,) use a tool like Process Street to turn routine tasks into checklists and procedures. Don't give out free steak.

2. Onboard Customers Without Them Noticing

Think back to your first Chipotle ordering experience. You got up to order, a line of impatient Chipotle veterans behind you, and you were trembling at the idea of messing up. You were presented with two options: burrito or burrito bowl. Easy enough.

Next, you were given another two options: white or brown rice. Again, not rocket science. Then came the beans, again a binary choice. By the time you had to handle the complexity of picking between 5 different meats, you'd already warmed up to Chipotle's ordering style. You proceeded, confidence brimming, to order and devour a burrito the size of your face, all without realizing you'd just gone through the customer onboarding process.

You can generate insane boosts in growth by treating a customer's initial interaction as a tutorial for using your product. Appcues, a service for non-programmers to build in-app experiences, pointed out that the most successful classic Nintendo games used this exact strategy. The first few levels you played were more or less there to teach you how to play.

3. Boost Engagement By Making Progress Visible

Ever walked into Chipotle around noon on a weekday? We're talking about lines to rival the post office.

But if you're fortunate enough to be in a blessed house of burritos, you'll also notice how quickly the wait goes by. Every time a person in front of you picks a topping, you get to take a step forward. You're more or less in constant, albeit slow-paced, motion.

You can apply this to any company. If you have an app with a multi-step registration process, include a visible "progress meter" that updates after each step. If your company is less high-tech, say you run a more traditional consulting firm with a waitlist of clients, update them regularly about their place in line.

When we feel like we're making progress, we're much less impatient and much less likely to get frustrated. StatusPage, a service for creating custom app or website status pages, finds that by making progress visible, even a disaster (like a crashed website) can be turned into a positive customer experience.

Something For Everyone

Regardless of your business, you can learn a lesson about growth hacking just by ordering a burrito. Feel free to use this as an excuse to schedule all your future "lunch meetings" at Chipotle.

Published on: Mar 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.