Friday, May 14, 2010

McDonald's, 2 (Jobs v. Life)

Jobs v. Life is an exploration of my life through the jobs I've worked. McDonald's is the second job I ever had. The Table Of Contents is here.

I go to McDonald's all the time. Sweetie and I were talking about that yesterday, when we got on the subject of whether you'd get sick of the food you make if you worked at the place that made the food.

We started talking about that as we were sitting in the drive-through of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, waiting to get our (turned-out-to-be-disappointing) 10th Anniversary Dinner. I was watching the people inside make fried chicken and assemble dinners, and I said to Sweetie "Imagine working in a KFC. That'd be great."

Sweetie then said "I bet you'd get sick of the food. But maybe not." She remembered that Oldest worked at McDonald's and ate at McDonald's all the time, then, and now.

"I don't think I'd get sick of it," I said. "I didn't get sick of McDonald's food when I worked there, either. And I ate Subway sandwiches twice a day for about four years and never got sick of them, either."

I then regaled Sweetie, for about the 50th time in our marriage, with the graphic description of how to really make a meatball sub at Subway, something she's heard all too often.

(That was all just part of the romance of our 10th Anniversary. It wasn't all the romance, because we also went to Panera and got her a Frozen Mango drink, and we watched two episodes of Modern Family, and we also -- I don't like to brag, but if you're the jealous type you won't want to read this -- we also played "balloons" with Mr F and Mr Bunches.)

I never did get sick of McDonald's food when I worked there... and I never actually got sick of working at McDonald's, either. People talk about "McJobs," but as a 16-year-old fresh into the labor market, I found McDonald's to be exciting and fast-paced, and also pretty greasy.

My first task, at McDonald's, was to work the fry vats. The McDonald's that I worked at, I'm sure, bears little to no resemblance to your modern-day McDonald's. I see glimpses of McDonald's nowadays and see computer screens and weird grills and all kinds of dispensers and things, and I don't recognize any of that.

I do recognize, largely, the layout of almost every McDonald's, as almost everyone of them is laid out just about the same. With minor variations, almost every McDonald's you see if going to have the main ordering counter midway through the building. It's going to have a gap on the left side of that counter (as you face it) where employees can come and go between the working-portion of the restaurant and the customer-portion of the restaurant. The drive-through window -- sometimes spelled drive-thru, for no reason whatsoever beyond the reasoning that drives people to rename everything as an acronym or shortened version of something -- will be just to the left of that entrance, and just to the back of that drive-through will be the fry station.

That's the layout of the McDonald's that I go to all the time now, the one that's about a mile from my house, and that was the layout of the McDonald's where I began my 'real job' career, working the fry station.

I'm not sure what it is about McDonald's that makes them put their least experienced person on the most dangerous thing they have. I'd say it's crazy and it makes no sense, except that there are several reasons not to argue with their tactics:

First, I didn't injure myself, even as a clueless 16-year-old who had (has) a tendency to zone out and forget what he's doing, and

Second, McDonald's is wildly successful and therefore you should think long and hard before you question what they do.

I think that a lot nowadays: I think, a lot, be careful questioning those who clearly know something about what they're doing. When you're young, it's hip and clever to say things like "Question Authority!" and I did my fair share of that kind of posturing -- remember, I formed the hip, radical, entirely-non-loserish group called "Rebellious Youth Without Phones" at my high school -- but as you get older, you start to say stuff like "Wait a minute, why should I just blindly question authority? Shouldn't I maybe start to wonder how they got authority in the first place, and shouldn't I sort of respect that fact, and try to learn from them what they did to get that authority and how it's working out for them, before I just question them?"

In short, questioning authority -- or criticizing McDonald's procedures -- is dumb. It's the kind of dumb thing people do without thinking about how dumb it really is, and I've learned to recognize that over the years.

Most recently, I had to apply that thinking twice in my current job. Over the winter, one of the bosses at the firm was thinking about making some changes. The details of the changes aren't that important, not for the point I'm making. He was just going to make some changes. And almost everyone in the office was critical of the changes.

The people in the office range from the twenty-something receptionist to nearly-retired secretaries to paralegals to 20-year-plus lawyers, and they all have one thing in common: None of them have ever run a successful business.

I have that in common with them; while I've run a business -- I had my own law practice for two years, with myself as the sole employee -- I have never run a successful business. My own law practice, being my own boss, led me to a time that Sweetie and I refer to as "The Weekend of No Money," and that is not a fond memory.

So when my boss now was contemplating making these changes, and everyone was up in arms about it, I reminded them, from time to time, that The Boss might just know what he's doing. As I put it to Sweetie: "He's built the firm up from nothing to a really successful business that keeps on growing and doesn't even advertise. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt."

Eventually, everyone else in the firm talked The Boss out of it, and he didn't go through with his changes.

Then, more recently still, I had to re-apply that idea to myself -- having gotten into a dispute with The Boss at work, too. It wasn't much of a dispute, not really. It was just that a couple of minor gripes that I've had for a while built up and up and up until I decided to address them, and when I did address them, meeting with The Boss and The Other Boss, they didn't take my advice for how to address what I saw as the problem. Instead, they applied their own advice, their own advice being, essentially "You've got to put up with it."

They didn't say that, in so many words, but that was the end result of a very unsatisfying lunch meeting we had: not much is going to change, and I've got to deal with that -- "that" being employees who I don't think are doing all that they could be doing, and who I don't think are doing very well those few tasks they bother to try.

That may be ironic. I'm not sure it is, or if it's merely coincidental, or if it's poetic justice. It's probably all three of those. What's ironic/coincidental/poetic justice is that I was nearly driven to distraction (and many times am driven to distraction) by being surrounded with people I view as not being very good workers: many (but not all) of my coworkers don't (in my view) work hard and don't do good work.

That's not just my view. The Boss and The Other Boss said as much -- they said that in the entire firm there's only two "go-getters," and that I'm one of them. And then they said I've got to live with that, and not hold people to the standards I hold myself to.

That's the coincidental/ironic/poetic justice part: If you were go to any boss I ever worked for that someday, I would be having a meeting with the two people I now work for, and if you were to say to that prior boss that the conversation would be how I am unfairly expecting people to work just as hard as I do, every single one of those prior bosses would say:

"Are we talking about the same person?"

I have never before been categorized as a hard worker or go-getter. For most of my career, I would have been categorized as a "space filler." I took up room and did what I was told, some of the time, but not very well and not very quickly.

And that all began at McDonald's, which saw fit on my first day to put me on the fry vats in a 2-hour shift.

McDonald's, back then, worked employees like me mostly on a 2 or 3 or 4 hour shift. Longer shifts than that were rare. Almost nobody that I was aware of worked more than 4 hours at a time. 8 hour shifts, I think, were for shift managers and day managers and "crew chiefs," a position that I almost immediately coveted once I learned it existed, which wasn't for quite a while because even though McDonald's trained me and showed me videos and told me how they were organized, I wasn't really paying attention and so I had to gather through experience all the things they tried to just tell me.

For my first two hour shift, I reported in my blue polyester pants and my blue polyester shirt, and I had, I believe, a visor. I'm pretty sure that by 1985, McDonald's was beyond paper hats. Pretty sure, but not entirely sure, because while I think I recall wearing a visor, I also recall the only crew chief who I remember -- a really big fat guy named Terry, who had reddish-blond hair and freckles and a red face that I thought was from the heat of the kitchen but which was really probably from high blood pressure -- I recall Terry wearing a paper hat. I also recall it being brown, while I'm positive that my vest was blue.

So don't trust my memory, is what I'm saying.

As the fry-vat guy, I had several duties. First, I was responsible for making french fries. That meant taking big paper bags of frozen fries, ripping them open, dumping them into wire baskets, and putting the basket down into a large vat of boiling hot oil. I then had to hit a button atop the vat to get the timer going; things at McDonald's are not left up to judgments as to when they're done. Everything was timed to the second, with little square buttons of red and white and yellow and lights flashing and timers clicking.

Once the fries were done -- signaled by lights flashing and beeps -- I was to take them and dump them into a large steel area with holes in it, to allow draining of excess grease. I then sprinkled salt on them and scooped them into bags, small and large size.

That's something I've long wondered about: how we settled only two sizes of french fries when we have numerous sizes of everything else. You can't get, so far as I know, a medium fries anywhere. It's always small and large (or regular and large in the marketing parlance we've all come to accept -- Americans are conditioned by now to never refer to the smallest size of things as the small, but as the regular. Which makes every other size irregular, but never mind.)

You can only get two sizes of fries. But you can get 3 or 4 sizes of popcorn at the theater, and you can get, I believe, five sizes of soda at a convenience store. Meanwhile, McDonald's has four sizes of soda... but only two sizes of shake.


That's a head-scratcher. I've always wondered about it. For 25 years, I've wondered why some things demand a billion different sizes, while others are allowed only one size. I wonder that the same way I wonder why anyone, including me, buys a large soda when they're going to be eating in the restaurant and refills are free. (I used to always buy a large soda, even when refills are free, but then I thought about it one day, and decided that I wouldn't do that anymore, because why? I can get up and get a refill, free, so paying more for a large means, essentially, donating money to that restaurant. And they don't need more of my money.)

McDonald's had a special tool for bagging the fries, back then. It was a scoop with a wide front and narrow base and a handle on the right side, and the base was just the right size to fit into the mouth of the small white paper bag that McDonald's used, and has used, for as long as I can remember for their small fries.

(There's something comforting about the fact that a small fries still comes in that little white paper bag at McDonald's. I like to buy Happy Meals for the Babies! because they come with a small fries, and I like to see that little white paper bag. It makes me nostalgic, just a little. And happy, because there are things that don't need to change, and if they don't need to change, they shouldn't change. That white paper bag didn't need to change, and it hasn't, so at least one tiny little thing in the world makes sense.)

And I didn't think then, but I have since, how fascinating it is that not only does McDonald's have a whole system for cooking fries, but they even have special tools to make it faster to cook fries. I don't know if McDonald's invented that fry-scooping tool, or if they bought it from someone els, or if someone saw someone somewhere trying to scoop fries with a regular scoop and thought I can make that easier. What I do know is that we have a society in which scooping fries into a small white paper bag was made a little more efficient and easier to do, which seems both perfect and perfectly crazy to me. How much time is saved, and how many fries are saved, by doing that? Why did we need a special tool just to do that?

I know that during my time at the fry vats, saving an extra second or two wasn't really that big a deal. When it was slow, saving time on the scooping of fries wasn't an issue at all. Someone needed fries, I'd scoop them up. There was enough time to do that without worrying about losing precious microseconds to an inefficient scoop.

When it was busy, microseconds might have needed saving, but it wasn't fries that were holding up the works. I was able to, when it was busy, get the fries bagged and ready (sitting in their own little rack next to the scooping area) and they'd be waiting there for someone to grab, so saving microseconds per bag -- or even a second or two per bag-- wasn't necessary. I had the time to do it, and I had the time to do it because there wasn't really a way to speed up the process of getting the money from people, or handing them their change, or them ordering. The delays, if there were any, were in those things, not in the time spent scooping fries.

But nevertheless, McDonald's had a scoop to make fry cooking more efficient -- and it no doubt did, shaving several seconds per shift off the process.

McDonald's was still hampered by employing people like me, and by serving people like me, people who will dawdle and delay and forget that they're cooking fries because they're watching the guy in the drive-through, wishing they could work the drive-through, people who will burn the Filet O'Fish because they didn't realize that that particular beeping was for them, instead of for someone else.

But they would save seconds on the scooping.

In between cooking fries, I also, as hinted above, had to cook other fried things, which included back then Apple and Cherry Pies, and Filet O'Fish filets. Those were all fried up in the same vats as the french fries, and as each other -- although never together. I was told that: don't put filet o'fishes, or fries, or pies, in the same fry basket. It was okay to dump the fries from a basket, then put some filets in it and cook those, then dump those and put pies into that same basket and cook them in the same oil, but you couldn't put fries and pies into the same basket at the same time.

"Why?" I asked when told that. My boss looked at me for a second and said "Just don't."

So much for questioning authority.

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