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Burger King installed digital menu boards to nearly all of its U.S. locations last year as part of its rebranding initiative. The company installed the digital signage solutions in more than 6,500 stores within four short months.
IST, or Installation & Service Technology Inc., served as project managers and installers for Burger King partner SICOM Systems Inc., deploying nearly 26,000 NEC Display Solutions digital signage displays in 16 weeks.
IST CEO and President Jacob Horwitz spoke with QSRweb.com to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to manage such a large deployment in such a short period of time. (For a five-day work week and 6,542 locations, that's an average of nearly 82 locations per night. All the installs were done while the restaurants were closed for the night.)
IST started with a 90-store test before moving onto the full rollout, then developed installation guidelines and timelines. Once Burger King signed off on those, then it was off to the races. According to Horwitz, there was a ramp-up period at the beginning and a ramp-down period toward the end, but at the height of the project IST was doing about 120 stores a night.
Stages of installation
In the early planning stages, IST hit upon a novel approach that Horwitz said made all the difference in the project.
"Our approach to it was, 'How are we going to do something this large this small?'" he said. Having one team try to do hundreds of installs a night would be a nightmare, so IST decided to turn one huge project into three smaller, more manageable ones.
It might not have been the most efficient solution or the most effective use of labor, Horwitz acknowledged, but from a manageability one, it was. "We made a decision to say, 'Let's treat this like three completely separate projects.'"
So IST broke down the country into three pieces, he said, each with separate project teams, separate installers, separate accounting people and separate QC (quality control) people for each region.
"And all of a sudden, mentally it wasn't like we were trying to do a hundred-and-something a night, we're doing 30 a night with three different vendors, and it just mentally allowed us very quickly to get our arms around it," he said. "I think that's why we were successful."
The company might have saved some money to do it in a different way, Horwitz said, "but in the scope of a project that size ... it would've been penny-wise and dollar foolish."
Each region had a 12-person command center, staffed from the moment the first installer got on-site to the moment the last one left the jobsite the next morning, with dispatchers taking notes and technicians to support the people in the field to make sure everything, monitors and POS systems, were programmed, and in most cases integrated, correctly.
IST also always kept extra people in the field, roaming supervisors in case of problems and runners to ferry parts or supplies that were needed to stay on schedule. For instance, if a location on one night's schedule had a display damaged in shipping, the company would "rob Peter to pay Paul" by taking a display from a store scheduled for later and then replace that one the next day, Horwitz said, just to keep things on schedule and avoid a "domino effect" of deadline failures.
IST also found it imperative to overschedule on personnel, he said.
"You know that when you have 200 people a night scheduled to be in the field or more, three of them are going to be sick, or at least claim they're sick, and six of them are going to be late," he said. So IST would overstaff in those markets just to make sure that it had a plan anyway.
"So we staffed for that, and I think that ultimately really helped, because even though there was extra money in having that labor, if you get behind you have a horrible domino effect of staying on that kind of schedule," Horwitz said. "And if those dominos start falling, the cost of that is exponentially higher than keeping extra guys in the field ready to be engaged, because now you're changing airplanes and getting more people, having to work weekends, just to stay on schedule."
Each market also kept on hand "crash kits" of extra displays, extra cables, extra media players, etc. to make sure certain teams were able to stay on target. IST project managers also worked to make sure the right people were on hand at the right time, be it an electrician to rewire a store or a manager with a key to let installers into the store, he said.
And while there were problems — such as stores in which the drop ceiling had been built around the old menu boards, requiring extra work to rebuild part of a ceiling over the new digital boards, or restaurants that needed to reinforce walls to hang the displays — Horwitz said the final report card from Burger King graded the project an overwhelming success.
Horwitz offered some key takeaways from the project, some of which were new lessons, some of which IST already had embraced from its decades of installing POS systems in quick-service restaurants:
1. Overstaff: "No matter how much we overstaffed, you can't overstaff enough," he said. "Overstaff in the field."
2. Failure rates: "Understand what your out-of-box failure rate and missing equipment rate is going to be," he said. It might not be the vendor's fault; it might be that UPS lost a box or the restaurant staff misplaced a piece of equipment, "but you have to understand what percentage of spare equipment you're going to need to keep your schedule on track."
3. Connectivity: "Our biggest wait time was connectivity issues," he said. "Don't underestimate how you can come to a standstill if you can't get connectivity." It is critical to really understand who is the Internet service provider of a site and what make and model of router is being used, he said, and there has to be someone from the store or the franchisee on hand who has the username and password to access it. Because of PCI-compliance issues, Horwitz said, "I don't want a QSR to give us the username and password, but we need it available when we get there. And if they do give it to us, we need to have them there to change it as soon as we're done ... It's a huge liability."
4. Dress rehearsals: IST brought in any of their installers without previous digital signage experience, in teams of 10, to a central training center, and had them do full installations of a full digital menu board setup there. (And they would introduce random failures into the process to prepare them to handle situations in the field.) "Those that had no digital or menu board experience, they were doing full installations in a training environment before they ever set foot in a restaurant, and I think that made a huge difference."
5. Command centers and quality control: "The command center is a must," he said. "You can't have 100 stores going in a night and not have a team of people just waiting for the phone to ring; you just can't." Also, before installers could leave for the night and mark a location finished, they had to email in digital pictures of the finished installation back to the command center for QC purposes.
But the biggest key decision IST made was that first one, Horwitz said. Instead of focusing on synergies and trying to squeeze every penny's worth of efficiency out of the project, the key is to focus on making sure there is a backup, and then a backup to the backup. If you're deploying to 6,000 stores and you're worrying too much about saving $5 or $15 per store by having one accounting person instead of three, "that's just dumb," he said.
"We just overscheduled everything we could overschedule, and at the end of it, it worked out where we probably didn't overschedule, because the people that did call in sick, you didn't pay them anyway," he said. "So I think that was really the key: Do not try to be penny-wise. You will fail; there's just too much that can and will go wrong."
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