IIT/ID Design Strategy Conference 5/12/2011 (Day 1) – Dennis Weil

The term “wicked problems” comes up a lot for anyone marginally or primarily associated with the Institute of Design, Institute of Technology. Wicked problems are usually large in scale, complex, and terminally dysfunctional in their current form. One world normally not associate McDonalds Corporation as having these sort of “wicked problems” from a pure number’s perspective or from a high level view noting their presence in almost every hamlet, small town and big city world-wide. When you look deeper, you begin to see problems ranging from minor to wicked and not all of them having to do with a shift in how humans view nutrition and food consumption (or labor rights). Simply changing a product offering or extending an existing product offering may not be enough for innovation or transformation of a company in a changing, challenging or emerging marketplace. Having graduated from the Institute of Design, Institute of Technology, Dennis Weil approached some of the wicked problems facing McDonalds from a human-centered, design-thinking perspective with a clear and strong “plan to win”.

For decades, McDonalds focused on the traditional business models of growth for growth’s sake while ignoring the time-tested adage “bigger is not necessarily better”. Times change and the evolution of our economy worldwide from supply and demand (scale, manufacturing lead) to an economy of choice (consumer power) has created some major problems for older companies dependent on traditional models of strategic growth based on scale only. Dennis and his colleagues began looking at customer (or user) behavior and found that there is a growing need, with the onset of mobile and a growing diversity in segments, for a “decoupling” of purchase and consumption. In other words, the dine-in or drive through model (based on the growth of the car and highways) would not be enough to compete in today’s “fast food” marketplace. One of the solutions introduced in various locations around the world is a mobile app that allows for the ordering, scheduling, pickup and payment of a meal. The solutions couldn’t stop from there in a complex global market filled with varying systems and varied cultures and consumption patterns as well as tremendous complexity at the store level. As opposed to over-arching top-down changes and solidly structured corporate guidelines (again, the traditional model), Dennis and his team developed frameworks and systems that could facilitate operations at local levels to meet these various needs. Therefore, efforts began in prototyping and actual implementation from a “bottom-up” trajectory. They developed “global standards” that would be adopted and adapted by local design, production and development sourced to local agencies as opposed to a centralized production line. Dennis realized through research and synthesis the nuances and differences involved in various world-wide marketplaces like South America vs. North America vs. Australia vs. France. From the facade to the internal workings of the staff on the floor (customers are not just buyers of products but the people who supply or service them as well), discovery was done to figure out the best answer to the wicked problems each region and location face today.

Interesting in all of this was the use of space as a visual que and Dennis presented several examples of this, showing a transformation in process involving the ordering, pick up, preparation and consumption of food and beverages. A common theme of the conference is the impact these efforts have had on the “bottom line” of McDonalds, increasing shareholder value exponentially between 2002 and now. Had McDonalds ignored the varied needs of different markets, cultures and operations, expanding and growing for growth’s sake, would it have the revenue and market-growth it has achieved today? This presentation is a prime example and follow-up to Jeff Semenchuk‘s presentation (blog post about it here) about how people need to look at and approach problems differently with a clear awareness that markets and economies change over time.

Also see: California Design and Wendy Kaplan and “Making Over McDonalds


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