What making Big Macs taught me about corporate innovation

Why are your teams not innovating even though they're told to? This is the frustration expressed by many mid- or C-level managers that have been tasked with driving innovation. They point at innovative companies, the usual suspects, as an example that it's possible. It leaves them wondering what's hindering their teams to be more innovative. In this article, I will break down this problem according to my experience as a burger maker at McDonald's.


When I was a 19-year-old student, I wished to earn something on the side to not max out my student debt. One of the many attempts to get some monthly income was to work as a cook at McDonald’s. Back in 2010, I started working on probably the most famous burger in the world, the Big Mac. My responsibility was not to make that burger. That’s far too much responsibility for a newcomer. My job was to dress the buns of the Big Mac. The day before my first working day I was trained by an interactive videogame with a talking milkshake, notably aimed at adults with a very high Dora the Explorer vibe. I learned to always wash my hands.

On that first day, I approached my workspace. The floor was a bit greasy in some spots, I discovered by slipping. I was completely surrounded by shiny metal kitchen appliances, wearing a black McDonalds apron and a matching polo shirt. The cashier in an identical outfit stood right behind me. We were separated by a wall of milkshake, soda or ice cream machines and that rack where finished burgers slide down on towards her.

Whenever she sold a big mac, she would yell “two HB [hamburger] down please”. I would start briefly grilling the buns creating a crystalized crispy layer over the soft cushioning of the bread. As I do this I would yell “two HB down” to the grill master, all the way in the back. Think of the fire beacons of Lord of The Rings, a chain of passing down information. I had exactly as much time to dress the buns with the Big Mac sauce, ketchup, onions, lettuce as it took to grill the burgers, which was about 40 seconds. The grill master would put the cooked burgers on the buns which I spread out on a tray. Standing next to me, the fourth person in this chain, would assemble the burger and wrap it in paper and slide it down the rack towards the cashier. It was an incredibly streamlined process of the McDonalds restaurant operation. What I didn’t know back then, is that this experience would provide me with a highly suitable metaphor for innovation in organisations.

Minimum requirement for exploration

As a burger dresser, I was a part of the operations, tasked with merely carrying out operational procedures. It was my job description to do so, I was hired to do so and I was ‘trained’ to do so. I helped to maintain the output of this McDonald’s restaurant measured in burgers. 

Let’s transfer the metaphor and look at the organisation you are in. How many people are making burgers? How many people are tasked with creating new ways of making burgers or even develop things that are not burgers? 

A lot of the organisations I encounter the vast, vast majority—if not 100%— of the people spent time on meeting the burger targets. Yet, managers are surprised to see that these teams are not creating new ways on how to make burgers. This friction between innovation and targets arises so easily. In literature, it’s seen as the battle between exploration and exploitation. When incentives are only set on exploitation by meeting operational targets, explorative efforts will suffer. Exploration is uncertain and therefore willfully avoided by managers responsible for targets. Why would he take the risk if there is no reward? Moreover, exploration often has delayed returns, as it can take time to make a measurable impact. Visionary leadership is required to recognise this, as failing to innovate can render your entire business obsolete. If you want your teams to innovate, allocate time, resources and mandate. Reward aimed exploration, accept the risk for failure, and have a true discussion about the priority of targets over innovation.

Who are you asking to innovate?

Even though you have tasked people with the challenge to innovate, and the resources are there, innovation can easily stagnate. A common problem is that most people that make burgers are not trained for innovating: they were trained for making burgers. Expecting from your burger flippers to create a new business opportunity by saying “Go innovate more!” is like pointing at a forest and asking your HR-person to build a log cabin from scratch. Think of this quote: 

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Even though it is not proven that Einstein wrote this, this is what often happens within organisations: expecting innovative behaviour from people trained otherwise. Opposed to the climbing by the fish, innovation can be learned. (For the sake of efficiency, I am assuming we want this to happen with the current people and not wait for 10.000 generations of fish to mutate to be able to climb, such as a gecko). The basics of innovation, indeed, comes rather intuitively to humans.

This is where most design thinking and innovation workshops come in. A (centralized) place is created where new burgers or new things are born in a guided fashion. This channelled creativity indeed leads to new concepts. If you are not doing this already, you will be surprised how many ideas and opportunities might already be in your teams. However, this might leave ideas in hanging in a conceptual form. Having dedicated people in your teams that are able to capture innovative ideas and push them all the way to implementation—it’s a long road—is the approach and skillset of the future. They should be able to navigate the complex structure of your organisation and surpass conventional organisational boundaries in order to make a true impact. The structure of your organisation has a huge influence on how easy it is to implement innovative ideas. This too can be designed in order to foster innovativeness.

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