It’s About Time… And Motion

Raise your hand if you’re pretty good at getting food to your customers fast. Now raise your hand again if you believe you still could find ways to improve throughput. You can get different, better equipment. You can alter and improve your facility layout. You can balance your workstations better. You might even reevaluate your operation’s processes—are you sure you’re sourcing your menu the best way possible?

Time-motion studies can show you and your operations people a lot you probably don’t think about during your typical busy day. Timed-task analysis, as it relates to industrial work, traces its roots back to the 1880s. Motion analysis goes back to studies during World War I of the precise movements involved in assembling and disassembling small arms. By the 1950s, industrial engineering had widely combined the two types of analysis and adopted time-motion studies across major industries. 

Foodservice didn’t have a chair at the industrial-engineering table back then. Chains were just emerging. Independents didn’t have the resources or inclination to conduct large-scale studies of anything. By the ’60s and ’70s, some of the big chains were getting pretty methodical. But time-motion studies didn’t really take hold in foodservice until recently.

Virtually every foodservice operation can benefit from a systematic study. “We all can fall into thinking we know everything,” says Andy Simpson, Partner at consulting firm Results Thru Strategy, Charlotte, N.C. “When you think about time-motion, it’s good to recognize that you don’t know everything. It’s good to seek outside perspective. An enlightened leader recognizes that a lot of great ideas are out there. … Some part of a study should be done by an outsider.” 

Simpson, who has been in foodservice for more than 25 years, has worked for numerous chains—in management and as a consultant. He says being inside a system can cause you to look past issues. Involving a fresh pair of eyes is important.

“You have to start with the mindset of questioning everything,” he says. “Don’t assume anything is correct—including the products. Have procurement look at what products are being purchased and prepared. I mean, think about food products that are packaged differently, used differently. You might decide to radically change the way something is being done.” 

How Big Are The Gains?

What kind of payoff can you expect from a time-motion study? Results will vary widely, as you can imagine. But time-motion studies have led some operations to cut cook times and/or increase throughput by as much as a third. 

“We did an informal kind of time-motion study,” says Laura Spoor, V.P.-Operations, Platform and Engineering at Denver-based Smashburger. “My background is industrial engineering, so this kind of exercise is in my nature. We looked at processes and systems.

“We want to produce a quality product, consistent and repeatable from shift to shift, restaurant to restaurant, person to person,” Spoor says. She and her team did some digging, observing and analyzing processes and systems to identify challenges. “Then we got into root causes of those challenges and analyzed them,” she explains. One area drawing scrutiny involved cook times on the grill and how the kitchen produced burgers. 

“We looked at all grill processes, worked with different types of equipment. We looked at the total picture, not just the grill itself but how a change in equipment would affect other equipment and the whole workflow.” Ultimately, the chain decreased its cook times by a third and has been able to balance its faster cook times with the rest of the kitchen prep and menu production system.

Some of the details of Smashburger’s findings are proprietary, but the bigger picture isn’t. “The time-motion study process allows us to look at our sales, labor and throughput differently,” Spoor adds. The chain looked at the capacities of the various pieces of equipment it was considering and found they varied significantly. She and her team discovered that when you move or change something on the cookline, it has ramifications and impacts the rest of the line. And, because the menu is ever-changing, the whole production system can be thrown off balance again. “Just when you have it figured out, the pendulum will swing again,” Spoor says. “The challenge is designing systems that work but also are flexible.” 

Another chain, Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, has seen similar throughput improvements from time-motion analysis. The fast-growing Denver-based breakfast-and-brunch concept, soon scheduled to open in its fourth Western state, recently contracted with Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting firm Deterministics to assist in streamlining its processes.

“We did the time studies, redesigned the workflows and removed bottlenecks,” says Deterministics President Brian Sill, FFCSI. Deterministics has been applying industrial-engineering principles to what it calls Throughput Capacity Management since the 1980s and has more than 100 chain names on its client list. “Mock-up testing for Snooze shows a 30% reduction in ticket times,” Sill says. “That’s an improved sales capacity of 10%—without adding staff. For years now we’ve been using time studies to help Panera Bread and many others with their staffing deployment to maximize throughput.” 

Wendy’s, too, studies time and motion. “What are we measuring, what are we doing, where are the bottlenecks?” says Matt Claborn, Manager-Facility Innovation for the Dublin, Ohio, burger giant. An industrial engineer formerly with consulting firm WD Partners, also in Dublin, Claborn has been applying analysis at Wendy’s for four years now. “We use different analytical formulae to measure things like how many seconds we take to handle a piece of lettuce, how much time to squeeze the mustard. We measure a menu item, we see how long it should take, station by station. Then we go do actual time studies to see what is real—to see if someone might be walking too much, for example.”

What Changes? 

What kinds of adjustments come out of the studies? “Once you know the time it takes to produce the different menu items, which stations they come off of and which specific pieces of equipment they come from, then you can allocate the right amount of labor to those stations,” Spoor says.

“If you have a product that takes longer than others, you ask yourself whether you can eliminate wasted steps or add labor to reduce production time,” she says. 

“Can you add small tools? Or change the recipe to make that process easier? You look at each menu item that way. Then you back up and look at the menu mix and which items are coming from which stations. You have to balance the stations based on load. Can I move a [menu item’s] build to a different station to get it out faster?” Spoor asks.

“There’s a bunch of ways to fix things by redistributing tasks,” Claborn adds. “Say I have two people making sandwiches: one doing tops and one doing bottoms. Maybe we’ll find that if the first person puts the cheese on instead of the second person, the work will be balanced out and the process will flow more quickly.” 

If those kinds of changes aren’t sufficient, “then we see about a new fryer or new grill, for example,” he says. “We study the equipment and process. If we redesign some aspect, for example, maybe we will switch to using drawers instead of doors for something to reduce bending, twisting, reaching.” Or perhaps there’s a fit for a new technology in the equipment lineup.

One process Wendy’s improved some time ago is ordering, paying and waiting. A simple adjustment, such as moving the customers past the order point to pay and wait, kept the order taker open to take more orders. It opened up the whole flow and measurably increased throughput. 

Another chain that has invested heavily in time-motion study is Guatemala City, Guatemala-based Pollo Campero, the subject of the Design article in FER‘s May 2014 issue. In fact, the study heavily influenced a new prototype for the 350-unit chain. The new layout “eliminated about 40% of distance traveled by kitchen staff, all by getting rid of crossovers and by moving equipment,” Bob Kuchinski, President of Coastline Design, Costa Mesa, Calif., was quoted saying in the article. Three of the new stores had impressive numbers: a 20% revenue increase over similarly sized units with the older design, a 10%-20% increase in service speed, a 10% decrease in energy consumption and improved product temperature and holding without an increase in the equipment-package cost.

How Granular Do You Get? 

A serious time-motion study can get down almost to a molecular level, if you want it to, from storage and prep to cooking, plating, delivery and cleanup. Or you can scale the project to specific areas. Want to take a look at the menu and ingredients to see if there’s a simpler, quicker way to get a similar result? You can do that. You might even decide you have labor tied up doing tasks that the supplier could do for you for a fraction of the cost.

You can study employee motion. “Look at the cookline,” Simpson says. “Compare individuals’ actual movements with what they are supposed to be on paper. Map out the work zones. Note where employees spend their time at peak periods. Peak periods have the most impact, so you want a peak-time analysis. That sometimes points out obviously needed changes. Is someone going back and forth too much, or is there too much cross traffic? Sometimes a kitchen gets constructed based on an initial-cost basis as opposed to what’s an efficient operation,” he adds. 

You can use that information not only to determine how an item should be made, but whether it should be made, says Danny Bendas, Managing Partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, based in Newport Beach, Calif. Bendas and Founding Managing Partner Dean Small, both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, have a combined experience of more than 60 years in the industry and have been partners 26 years. They’ve been involved in everything from bakeries to food manufacturing and have a lengthy list of foodservice chain clients. “We do time-motion not only on preparation, but on plating and assembly,” Bendas emphasizes. “Then we can attribute a cost for that time.” He notes calculations account for every labor task involved in every part of menu-item production. “That way we can evaluate whether labor is justifiable for all ingredients prepped in the kitchen.

“You can break down labor and ingredient costs for sauces produced in the prep kitchen by the ounce,” he notes. “You can look at a menu item, say this one is way too time intensive, and it’s not a good seller, and you can take it off the menu.” 

You also can use the same kind of data to reallocate which cooks perform which functions, Bendas says. “Less complicated prep can be allocated to a different cooking position at a lower hourly rate. Maybe you can’t save time, but you can reduce the labor cost.” 

Tuning Production Capacities

You can evaluate your various production capacities against your footprint and menu volumes. For example, in a typical time-motion study, Sill says, “Maybe we’ll notice cooks have food staged on a cookline bench waiting to go to the fryer, grill or oven. Well, that points to the fact that they have equipment capacity constraints. That happens when people change their menus over time and wind up overusing one piece of equipment and maybe underusing something they used to use more,” he says.

“A lot of times it is a nuance that only shows up during peak busy periods,” Sill notes. “When they’re slow, they have plenty of capacity. When they’re busy, the wheels fall off. Doing a capacity matrix by equipment is the first step to sorting out the situation.” 

Tuning capacity, he says, gets right down to how many square inches a chicken breast uses on the grill for how long, and how many are needed during peak periods.

Often, kitchen problems come down to right-sizing a 4-ft. grill to 3 ft., or vice versa, while perhaps making up the difference with another piece of equipment. 

Sometimes, Sill notes, it’s not even the size of the equipment that matters but the labor deployed to it. Say a station is designed for a single operator, but demand goes up. Suddenly, the equipment becomes a bottleneck because the one employee on the one piece of equipment can only produce so much. But the mise en place isn’t set up for two workers to run the station. A second cook comes in but ends up getting in the way rather than increasing production. Then finding another solution becomes the challenge.

Video Everything 

Whatever you do—and whoever works with you on your time-motion study—make sure you get a video record of what’s observed. Just about everyone we spoke to suggested it. “We’ve had huge success with setting up camera systems,” Simpson says. “We video everything and review it for time-motion. It’s amazing how you can see things in video playback that you didn’t see while it was happening. You say, ‘Hey, she took four steps there. The distance didn’t look that far when we were watching.’ Choke points stand out. Any time someone is waiting for something, you see it in the video. Maybe people are waiting at a POS station or bumping into each other at a beverage station.” Video identifies issues very clearly.

Video also provides a library reference. You’ll be able to look at it any time you want—and it might even give you new ideas for the future.


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