Books: When the meat in the sandwich is you

Put a supersized academic to work in McDonald's and what do you get? Juicy insights served with relish, says Hugh Fowler.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

If you can forgive an occasionally folksy style, US management professor Jerry Newman provides a fascinating insight into the McJob. There's a relevance and brio to his stories as he navigates his way through an astonishing seven jobs in 14 months.

To the British reader, the book is as much the tale of a radically different working culture as it is of life at the fast-food frontline. The idea of receiving one week's paid holiday a year, after working a minimum of 25 hours a week for the previous 52 weeks, gives you some idea of the gulf between working practices here and in the US. It is no different for the managers, who pull 16- to 24-hour shifts to ensure that they make bonus.

The contrast between British and American workplaces, and the move in the US towards a bigger average bodyweight, is highlighted by the fact that Newman could get a fast food job at all. Never mind that he is a 57-year-old university professor. He is 6ft 4in and weighs 280 pounds and complains that he can't get into his McDonald's XXL shirt. The author views this as an insensitivity towards body structure and comments that fast-food stores design everything for the average worker. 'The width of the aisles is sufficient for two workers to walk unimpeded or for one to walk past another at a work station. Put an extra few pounds on one or both of these frames, though, and the impeding begins,' he writes. One senses the imminent birth of a new heavyweight pressure group.

Ground-breaking this book isn't, with such penetrating observations as 'My research strongly suggests that recognition for a job well done is highly valued as a reward by employees' setting the tone. But this does not diminish it as a fascinating portrait of how hard a McJob is to do.

I've always been infuriated by the media's casual dismissal of the McJob as somehow not worth having. In what other industry are the raw materials delivered in the morning, the manufacturing done before lunch, the sales effected, the customers dealt with face-to-face, product and service feedback received and the cash banked in a day?

To do this well day after day while, as Newman describes it, under pressure from a tidal wave of customers, takes a special level of management ability. He notes that quality of leadership is paramount to delivering the aims of the company, yet finds huge disparity from store to store and even from shift to shift, and traces these variations to the managers' values and practices.

Newman observes that 'part of what leads customers to return regularly to a particular location is customer satisfaction'. The big brands know this and yet time and again he finds labour targets and bonus targets so tight that staffing levels cannot possibly deliver that satisfaction. So often, the undercover reporter finds that the big companies' day-to-day business practices fall well short of their oft-stated corporate values and principles. Usually, it is the very systems set up to maximise profitability that directly undermine that goal.

Unrealistic labour cost targets lead to training cutbacks and result in poor service. Newman's descriptions of the controlled panic of his first shift on sandwiches are a joy: 'Survival becomes the main objective ... the pace was relentless, which ones get dehydrated onions? Which ones real onion? How many pickles? How many pieces of cheese? I was swimming in burgers. I was hopelessly lost.' Put on cash register with scant training, Newman felt he should have had a sign over his head reading 'Don't eat here - trainee slow and stupid'.

Food-cost targets linked to bonuses lead to bad practice. A pizza operation I trained in had such tight food-cost controls that the sauce was regularly watered down and the mozzarella under-portioned. The managers made their bonus but customers didn't return.

Newman punctuates his book with his Supersized Management Principles. Put simply, these are: hire carefully, train thoroughly, create a happy working atmosphere and recognise work well done. Unfortunately for the big brands he skewers, these principles are more frequent in their breach than in their observance.

Every manager in every service industry will be familiar with the fundamental errors Newman identifies on his fast-food odyssey. The simple lesson is that it is the troops on the front line who are the face of the company to the customer. Neglect their training and welfare and focus only on the bottom line and business heads off down the street.

MY SECRET LIFE ON THE MCJOB

Jerry Newman: McGraw-Hill Education; £12.99

Hugh Fowler is founder and MD of restaurant chain Hamburger Union.

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