Helping Teams Get Lean

Veterans make great franchise owners and entrepreneurs. Their solid communication skills make them adept at leading teams in fast-paced operations where seamless execution is critical to success. They thrive in roles oriented around process improvement and lean methodology.

When it comes to creating lean processes, Zach Thomas is helping rewrite the book for Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A is one of the largest American fast food restaurant chains, and the largest whose specialty is chicken sandwiches. The author, coach, speaker, and West Point graduate is a compelling example of a military leader who began in an operations role, found things to improve, and created a formal process for getting it done.

After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Zach Thomas served as an Airborne Ranger. He launched multiple successful businesses before becoming a successful Chick-fil-A franchisee in Rockmart, Georgia. With zero restaurant experience, Thomas asked another Chick-fil-A franchisee if he could work for free to explore whether becoming a franchisee was right for him. “I didn’t even know how to run a cash register,” he said. “That’s where my Chick-fil-A journey started.”

###Leaning In###

Thomas began incorporating lean practices and building a lean culture in his store. Lean processes create more effective businesses by eliminating wasteful practices and improving efficiency. By teaching his team that waste comprises “more than just a dropped piece of chicken,” Thomas encourages them to incorporate practices that make their jobs easier.

Thomas followed lean advocate Paul Akers’ mantra, “Fix what bugs you.” One team member created a more efficient process for replacing tea in the heavy urns near the drive through area. Mounting a mirror on the bottom of the tea urn let her see when it was empty without having to remove the urn. She used the mirror as a guide when she refilled it as well.

Finding employees who embrace the vision is exciting. “Team members have the best ideas,” Thomas enthused. “If we empower them and allow them to make decisions that improve their daily work, they are more engaged and produce excellent results.”

###Incentivizing Teams##

Incorporating lean practices is now a source of pride among his staff, says Thomas. He offers incentives for process improvements and team members who share ideas on a GroupMe page receive a free meal. He awards “Kaizen Cash” in monthly drawings (kaizen is the Japanese term for “continuous improvement”).

“It’s a way of engaging hourly workers and team members of all levels to engage and share ideas,” Thomas said. It’s not always a “top down” hierarchy. He embraces the idea of continuous improvement from the bottom up.

He encourages team leaders to incentivize their staffs to participate. “What you think could be a silly idea could result in millions of dollars in cost savings,” he said.

###Spreading the Vision###

Thomas serves on the Lean Operator Panel for Chick-fil-A, Inc. and trains other teams on lean practices. His team created many of the learning modules that are part of Lean365, which fosters a lean mindset and culture among franchisees and helps them operate more efficiently.

Thomas even created an internal brand, [Lean6Ninja](, to motivate hourly workers and team members to continuously improve. Why the name? After all, “Who doesn’t want to be a ninja?” he joked. “Even improving something by two seconds is lean. If you do that 50 times a day, that’s 100 seconds per day. You can multiply it out and see it reduces waste.”

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