How Fast is too Fast? | Chipotle’s Order Processing Workflow System

Home / How Fast is too Fast? | Chipotle’s Order Processing Workflow System

As a student of human workflow systems, I was intrigued a while back to read about Chipotle’s investment of millions of dollars in new “burrito heaters” that heated the tortillas in half the time (a few seconds less) than their original tortilla heaters.  It was pretty amazing to think that the company spent millions of dollars (in the $20 million dollar range I believe) just to reduce the tortilla steaming time by a few seconds.  However, Chipotle is truly obsessed with their order processing time – it’s something they often mention in stockholder briefings, etc.  There is one big question that comes to my mind about their order processing workflow system though – how fast is too fast?

Back in computer science classes at the good old University of Pittsburgh, one fact I remember learning is that the average human brain can only process and retain 4-5 “chunks” of information at any one given time.  Any more than 4-5 individual pieces of information, and things start to get out of order, lost, and confused.  In Chipotle’s case, the specific pieces of information that need to flow through their workflow system are: the dish ordered by the customer, the toppings the customer wants, what kind of drink they want, and do they want any extras like chips and salsa.  As it is, Chipotle’s order process is so fast moving down the line (definitely less than a minute from the time an order is placed to the time you pay) that I often experience “lost chunks” of information as my order moves down the line.

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For instance – try asking for chips and guacamole after you’re already at the cash register.  Disaster occurs, and the whole line is backed up.  If you can’t remember the exact Spanish-named ingredient that your ordered in your burrito, and it wasn’t marked clearly on the foil, expect the register operator to have to yell down the line “Is this chicken or carnitas?”.  Mass hysteria.  So, despite the fact that your tortilla was steamed 3 seconds faster than it was last week, overall speed is not improved because the workflow process has issues.  I think that’s probably the most important point to take from all this – that if a workflow process has issues, optimizing an individual step may not improve overall throughput.

So from a software/workflow engineering process, how could we improve Chipotle’s system?

Since the other steps in the process are pretty fast, it appears that the bottleneck in Chipotle’s flow is the cashier.  That person already has the slowest step (not to mention if someone tries to pay in cash!!!), and anything that disrupts his or her flow causes the whole line to back up, and slows down all the other people in the line as they try to answer his or her questions, or scoop out the late-requested guacamole, etc.  To improve this process, one thing that could be done is to build a system where the person’s order was taken during the very first step (entered into piece of software), and ask them during that step if they want any “extras”.  Then, at the end, the cashier would have a list right in front of them of what was ordered, and could just accept payment.  Granted, adding this step might require another employee, but if the company is going to spend millions reducing the number of seconds it takes to heat the tortilla, maybe they’d be willing to hire that additional person.

Sam Schutte
Sam Schutte

Sam is the founder of Unstoppable Software, and has his hands in all aspects of its operations and growth. He loves architecting software solutions to fit a specific business need and helping CIOs and other technology managers figure out their software development strategies.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Adam
    Reply

    I find your point a rather interesting one. I’m a manager a Chipotle in the Chicago suburbs and when it comes to having great throughput, we need to ensure that certain positions are in place. During our busiest times, we actually have someone communicate with our cashiers what the customer’s order is, if the customer would like any sides, making it so the cashier just needs to give a total and process payment. If the person in the Expo position is really good at what they do, the cashier would have all the information they need by the time the customer is asking for cheese or guacamole on their entree.

    We want our customers to be able to interact with our team, making the idea of having someone log a customer’s order into a system without need. That being said, we do have our online system that does just that. Customers can order from their phone or computer and just pick up. This is not to be a plug for the online system we currently have, but saying that we do already have a system in place where we don’t need to create a special position to ask a customer their entire order.

    When we gather a customer’s order too early, we do run the risk of their food getting cold, so it’s important that the customer order in front of someone while that person is patiently listening to what each customer needs.

    Like I said, you do have some interesting points, but we already have systems in place that are similar to what you are suggesting, but we use them differently. We want the human element to be a strong part of what we do.

  • Sam Schutte
    Reply

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your comment – this article is actually from a few years back, so it probably pre-dates some of the online and iPhone ordering stuff that you have now.

    But you do bring up an interesting point – the human experience at a restaurant that is promoting its natural and healthy position is probably a very important aspect of the customer experience. If Chipotle were to completely replace all the humans at the counter with a kiosk-based ordering system, for instance, it would certainly make the whole thing seem less earthy/granola.

    So it makes sense to keep human beings in the workflow, but I think really what I was reflecting on in this article is how as custom software developments experts and business systems analysts, we often try to model processes like this in code – and have to handle the same “edge case” conditions, such as “someone asked for a change to their order when they already reached the end of the line.

    Also, certainly more recent technologies like Apple Pay and others will further reduce the likelihood that someone tries to pay with cash and throws things off – I wonder if we will start to see restaurants that simply don’t accept cash. Of course, it does say on the dollar bill that it is “legal tender for all debts private and public”, so I’m not even sure if solely accepting electronic payment would be legal! 🙂

    Lastly, one system I’ve seen restaurants use that’s slightly different than what Chipotle is doing is what Which Which uses – they give you a brown paper bag at the entrance to the restaurant, and you write on it exactly what you want, and then they make it. I imagine it probably throws off their process if you change your mind as well, but I wonder if Chipotle could adopt a system like this to make having to speak your order less necessary. I will say, that for those of us in a hurry and trying to extract orders from little kids that we have in tow, its easier just to write it down on the brown paper bag and hand it over, rather than having to relay the verbal order across the counter!

  • Nathan Stuller
    Reply

    One thing is for sure, it’s interesting to see that we are all cursed with seeing the world through a different lens, one that evaluates every workflow to see if it can be improved.

    It’s cool to see that Chipotle employees are intentional about improving order times. They are clearly one of the leaders in human vs software automation in business. Still, I’ve noticed myself and heard from others that it can sometimes be frustrating to see one worker take the order through several steps in the process, becoming a bottleneck during a busy time. I’m sure there are other factors at play and that some restaurant locations are better at this than others. As with anything, there is always room for improvement.

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