Dr Steve McCabe, Birmingham City Business School

The car manufacturer Henry Ford is the name most associated with having allowed the vision of scientific management come to life through his adoption of message contained in Frederick W. Taylor’s 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management.  

Ford’s ability to utilise what we now call mass production was revolutionary in demonstrating that it was possible to simultaneously speed up production and reduce cost. Often forgotten is that Ford’s implementation of the moving track, in which the car was assembled, was a result of him having seen the process in reverse in slaughter houses where cattle were disassembled.

Given what Ford achieved, it was unsurprising that others were eager to apply scientific management. After all, successfully implementing the principles of scientific management promised vastly increased output and, significantly, higher profits by selling to wider markets. This chimed in with the emerging dream of America as a land of hope and opportunity in which anyone including the immigrants flooding in from Europe could seek employment and prosperity.

If Ford showed that cars could be produced more efficiently, could the food eaten by Americans also be made more quickly? This was the dream of two brothers whose name is now utterly synonymous with America and, more especially, fast food.  Though others have attempted to innovate the cooking and service of food based on what ‘Fordism’ had shown to be possible – and given the American obsession with the motor car, developed the concept of ‘drive-in’ (or carhops as they were then known) – it was Maurice and Richard McDonald who effectively created the basis of burger chains as we now recognise them.

The McDonald brothers had, with their father Patrick, opened a drive-in in California in 1937. On the basis of what they learned in this establishment, the two brothers believed that they could improve their ability to serve better quality food faster. On 15th May 1940 they opened the McDonald’s Barbeque in San Bernardino, California.

There are now 36,258 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries, of which 29,544 are franchised

What the McDonald brothers were able to do was to offer a limited menu of 25 items but which were cooked in full view of customers. As well as adding bar stools for customers, the emphasis was on an experience explicitly intended to be family-orientated and one that emphasised quality and cleanliness.

Whilst the McDonald brothers enjoyed considerable success, they believed that they could improve. For instance, in 1948 they temporarily ceased business for three months to enable them to do this; the result of which was the focus on the centrality of hamburgers. Reducing the menu to nine items, food was prepared using modern equipment and employing processes including division of labour that Ford had used so effectively. This ensured that cooking times were reduced and allowed customers to be served more quickly.

It was unsurprising that the approach being used by the McDonald brothers would generate interest. And it was such interest which ensured that the McDonald’s name would become a phenomenally successful brand name that has gone on to be even better recognised than Ford. The person who was to achieve this success was Ray Kroc.

Kroc was a seller of milkshake machines, some of which were used in the San Bernardino area and other establishments opened as part of a loose franchise arrangement that had been agreed by the McDonald brothers.

The evolution of McDonald’s as the global brand we know today was a direct consequence of Kroc persuading the two brothers that whilst their basic approach was fine, far greater efficiency was possible if they were able to impose stringent levels of quality and uniformity. The rest is history. However, what Kroc was able to achieve was undoubtedly made easier by him buying them out for $2.7 million in 1961 following a confrontation.

Judged in contemporary terms though, McDonald’s has demonstrably shown that fast food can be extremely successful. There are many who now question whether ‘industrialisation’ has served us well. A number of books and programmes in recent years have castigated the company for its slavish adherence to both efficiency and profit. For such critics, reductionism does not make us better off, as the American dream promised, but lessens choice and, probably even more significantly, makes us less healthy.

75 years on from the first prototype, McDonald’s the brand may be ubiquitous but it faces intense competition in every country it operates in.  Whilst it is premature to speculate on whether it will survive, it is reasonable to assume that McDonald’s will need to continue to adapt to changing consumer tastes. Undoubtedly, McDonald’s will be remembered for many things, not the least of which was ensuring that fast food was available in almost every part of the world. Indeed, in the aftermath of the fall of communist dictatorships McDonald’s were often the first business to open up as a sure sign that freedom had arrived.

The 75th anniversary of McDonald’s is on 15th May 2015.

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Dr Steve McCabe

Dr Steve McCabe

Birmingham City Business School