Food factory AI: How McDonald's automation lets the crew focus more on customers

Think of a McDonald's as a food factory. If you can lower the hops and make ticket routing more efficient via artificial intelligence and automation, the crew can be more focused on customers.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

McDonald's has big plans to improve the customer experience with new technologies, but there's a parallel effort to improve the employees' day-to-day and enhance the small food factory behind the counter.

A year ago, McDonald's outlined a long-term growth strategy focused on enhancing digital capabilities such as kiosk ordering, delivery and accelerating deployments of its Experience of the Future restaurants. Under CEO Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's delivered global same stores sales growth of 5.5 percent in 2017.

Joel Eagle, senior director of technology and architecture at McDonald's, isn't responsible for the experience in the front of the store, but his group is an enabler. Increasingly, Eagle is looking at artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing to improve "the internal customer experience."

"We're looking to shorten the time to resolve problems and hops through the system," explained Eagle. Overall, Eagle is looking toward bot agents and natural language requests to cut the downtime in the kitchen and repair infrastructure faster.


McDonald's is also betting on smaller vendors such as Astound, which streamlines the way you request help and resolve problems via artificial intelligence and an intuitive interface. Astound looks to automate service management and provides an AI-powered wrapper to various systems and provides insights. In a nutshell, Astound manages machine learning models at scale.

Smaller technology players are increasingly critical to improving back-end processes that improve employee experiences. For instance, T-Mobile has leveraged WalkMe to improve customer experience. Multiple enterprises are using a company like Sapho to connect systems of record and provide a modern mobile-friendly UI. And Astound is in that mix too.

Eagle looked at Astound at the ServiceNow Knowledge event a few years ago. He said working with a smaller vendor has advantages since they'll put skin in the game and invest time and energy to make a project a success for an anchor customer. Specifically, Eagle was looking for a technology that could move around "ITIL speak" and fix problems quickly.

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"At McDonald's we don't go off and spend a lot. We make a lot of small bets then double down," explained Eagle.

Other areas where Eagle is looking for AI improvements include:

  • Analytics on top of ServiceNow via Astound to improve backend systems and operations.
  • Improving efficiency on multiple processes ranging from on-boarding to availability to robotics process automation.
  • Cloud architecture for point of sale terminals and connecting e-commerce and mobile apps.
  • Eliminating points of failure and improving availability.

Astound co-founder Dan Turchin said McDonald's had clear priorities when it came to driving automation and improving the internal customer experience. "What resonated with him is that you can automate the process of service requests throughout the lifecycle," said Turchin. "The challenge for us was figuring out how to automate requests as they go through various vendors and escalate. It's a confusing web to fix a shake machine. Like any company McDonald's has a patchwork of tools, vendors and systems of record."

What's the efficiency payoff for McDonald's? "Internally if you think of a restaurant it's really a small factory. Customers come to the factory and order. They come to get something. There's the whole Experience of the Future, but all that happens when the crew delivers at the right time and place," said Eagle. "We're indirectly affecting customer experience by providing a good crew experience."

AI can help with just in time manufacturing and can shift machines into action as needed. Eagle noted that McDonald's is just starting its automation journey, but is looking at improving processes for a hiring manager measured by time saved. Astound's technology can move to route tickets faster to the right person. Smart equipment in the restaurants can also ultimately add preventative maintenance.

"If we can develop technology to give crew members more time it'll be more about the experience of people in the factory," explained Eagle. "If we eliminate the need to focus on a broken machine we allow more focus on the experience."

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