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Management Lessons From In-N-Out Burger

An excellent book about a cult company.
Oct | 20 | 2009

Oct | 20 | 2009

I read two books on my recent trip to Las Vegas and Arizona. I reviewed Planet Google recently and I was going to review Stacy Perman’s In-N-Out Burger. Color me lazy, but I didn’t want to do a proper review for a few reasons:

  • I like to stay remotely on point in my blog.
  • I don’t have many insightful analyses to offer. It’s a great read. End of story.

Rather than review it, I figured that I’d take a different tack. I’d like to draw a few IT project management lessons from the storied burger chain that has achieved a legendary cult following since its inception. Here we go.

Lesson #1: Keep it Simple

In-N-Out founders Esther and  Harry Snyder (and later their son Rich) never deviated from their core mission: to provide quality food in a clean environment with spectacular customer service. That’s it.


Yes, IT projects tend to be fundamentally more complex than flipping burgers. I should know, I did my nine months at McDonald’s in Wyckoff, NJ as a teenager.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that most IT projects have a simple purpose, such as:

  • to pay employees
  • to track inventory
  • to improve communications
  • to secure the organization

Much like the Snyders, it’s important for management to keep the project’s purpose at the forefront throughout the duration of the project. Some might call this project sponsorship. Remaining true to a mission is a good general rule of thumb. Unfortunately, it’s all too often compromised by internal politics, bickering, rivalries, and the like.

Lesson #2: Keep your customers and employees happy

The Snyders didn’t skimp on things such as employee pay, staffing levels, or internal opportunities for advancement. What’s more, In-N-Out cultivated an egalitarian culture in the workplace, even requiring that everyone wear the same uniforms.


No, I’m not advocating that database administrators and CIOs all wear the same outfits. However, there’s something to be said for treating everyone with respect on a project, including external folks such as consultants. While times may be tight, CIOs and PMs need to staff projects with sufficient resources. Consider this: it’s hard to simultaneously flip burgers, watch the fries, and mop the floor. Imagine the difficulties with setting up and testing network security on a new system while concurrently doing your day job. Multitasking has its limits.

Lesson #3: Start small and expand cautiously

In-N-Out was the anti-McDonald’s.

While other fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and their ilk attempted to get as big as possible as fast as possible, In-N-Out took its time. (Note that publicly traded companies face pressures that the privately held In-N-Out Burger did not.) Perman describes how In-N-Out grew at a rate of about ten to fifteen stores per year, carefully selecting locations based on a number of factors. In other words, In-N-Out was the anti-McDonald’s, refusing to put a franchise in each conceivable spot. Translation: In-N-Out had a more sustainable business model and faced less risk of diluting its brand.


Heed this advice. “Boiling the ocean” on IT projects rarely makes sense. It’s better to have one little victory (Rush reference intended) than a bunch of failures. Make sure that the scope of a project makes sense from the beginning. Also, don’t be afraid of using Agile methods of software development and deployment, as my friend Roland Cuellar advocates in my next book.


What are your thoughts? Do you have any fast food metaphors for IT projects?

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1 Comment

  1. Claudia

    Good points, I like the cut and dried version of IT project management because, really, when it comes down to it, you’re right. There are certain goals to reach, regardless of the complexity of the path leading to them.


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