Uniformity and (Un)skilled Labor

It occurred to me while ordering my Sausage McMuffins this morning. The looping video on the menu showed an egg being cracked into a circular frame on a hot griddle to form the egg portion of the sandwich. This wasn’t much of a realization on its own; I’d seen the process and even done it a few times myself. What it connected to, unexpectedly, was the notion of how foolproof it is, and how devious.

The bakery provides sliced muffins, which sit at room temperature in a breadbox. The halves get warmed up in a toaster, or perhaps on the griddle. Stylistic choice, really.

You’re provided a frozen sausage patty, along with a purpose-built microwave that warms the whole thing in a short window of time to a very heavily-researched temperature that a) ensures there are no dangerous microbes, b) will melt the slice of processed cheese to a pleasing degree, and c) will be warm enough to be appetizing to the average consumer.

You’re then tasked with the straightforward duty of cracking an egg into a frame on a pre-oiled griddle, waiting a specified amount of time, and then scooping this cooked egg puck into the prescribed stack of ingredients (muffin bottom, freshly-cooked egg puck, warmed-up sausage patty, melt-ready cheese slice, muffin top) before wrapping it up in paper and dropping it onto the heat racks to maintain that pleasing temperature before the front-side staff package the order and pass it off to the waiting customer.

Once you’ve done this specific procedure a few times, it becomes rote. Automated. The reason machines don’t do the whole job is because it’s cheaper to pay a teenager minimum wage then it is to develop and refine the machine. If it weren’t for child labor laws, you could probably get toddlers to do the work if you were okay putting them in front of a hot griddle, and you could pay the toddler less than the teenager.

The process is so simple because it requires no skill. All it requires is the attention to place Tab A into Slot B, wait X seconds, and then assemble the parts in the right sequence. It is straightforward to teach, and to execute, but most importantly it creates uniformity in the delivered product.

[Now, yes, what complicates the job for line cooks in fast food is that they’re not responsible for making only one sandwich over and over. There are dozens of items on the menu with differing complexities, and then you get into customers making special orders, which drives the complexity up even further. The skill isn’t in the act itself, but the agility of the line cook to call up and execute the right procedure (with the right modifications if necessary) with minimal time wasted. And under no circumstances do I want to get into the debate about how much money this line cook should be compensated for this agility, because that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.]

I want to establish the process to describe its simplicity so that I comment on the uniformity that such a process produces.

You can walk into any McDonald’s anywhere in the US, and the Sausage McMuffin you ask for will be effectively identical. Which in turn means that you can always rely on a McDonald’s to deliver a product with no surprises. You, as the customer walking into a McDonald’s, know what you want, and you will be able to reliably get it.

You don’t have to think about whether the restaurant has something you like on the menu, because you already know the menu. The decision fatigue of the menu is a non-factor.

At the end of the day, fast food restaurants create an environment where you don’t have to think, or more importantly, you can reserve the resources you’d spend on thinking about what to eat for thinking about other stuff instead. But the way that they do this is they remove the innovations involved in the art of cooking SO FAR from the act of cooking that the people creating your product don’t have to think either. The people making your food invest the barest effort they’re allowed to deploy.

In a world where what we eat has such an impact on our wellness, shouldn’t we be thinking MORE about what we eat, not less? If that consequently creates a demand for more people who can spend time innovating in the kitchen, does that not elevate the art and science of cooking?

Hmm.

Lotta thoughts from a bad breakfast.

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Uniformity and (Un)skilled Labor

  1. I agree that it’s sometimes useful to not have to think about what we eat, but you’re right in that that has a downside. McDonald’s egg McMuffins are fast, convenient, and tasty, but they’re also markedly unhealthy for you. When you’re not thinking about what you’re putting into your body, you’re more likely to grab something like that.

  2. I think the trick is to make the healthy food choices as mindless as possible so you choose them over the fast food.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s