Taco Bell enhances employee training through tablet learning

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Getting the word out about a huge marketing and operations initiative within a company of 210,000 employees at more than 7,500 locations is tough even in the best of circumstances. Now imagine doing that 10 times per year. Every year.

“There’s no question it’s a challenge, but we’re up to it,” says Ferril Onyett, director of learning and organizational development at Taco Bell in Irvine, Calif. “It’s taken some trial and error, but when you have all the different parts of the organization on the same page, getting a message out to our team members is like second nature for us — just another day.”

The challenge for Taco Bell, a legend in the quick-serve restaurant category with $10 billion in annual sales, mainly consists of its menu additions. Almost every five weeks, the company has a massive company-wide rollout of a unique item, such as the “Naked Chicken Chalupa” and “Chocoladilla,” that requires training staff in far-flung locations how to create the item.

Connecting with younger workers

For years, Taco Bell would spend millions of dollars mailing and overnighting instructions and build cards that would be posted at work stations for employees to use when making the latest menu sensation. In 2014, the company started using its intranet system to send information about each new item. A last-second change would require the training team to scramble, sending updates to each location to make sure everyone was on the same page. Its intranet, known as “My TB,” also allowed staff to access “how-tos” that directed them to training but was limited as far as multimedia and searchability.

Looking for a better, more cost-efficient way to get information to its employees, Taco Bell began looking into enhanced communications vehicles and settled on a system from Inkling. The system operates both through dedicated apps and a website, is designed to be accessible on mobile devices and is specially engineered to provide video experiences for Taco Bell training.

“One of the issues they were facing, which is something many large retailers are looking at, is, ‘How do we connect with an increasingly younger workforce?’” says Matt MacInnis, chief executive and founder of Inkling.

“The problem is that the great new technology of 15 years ago is out of date. People are accustomed to consuming information on mobile devices now, so if that’s part of your employee education, you’re ahead of the game.”

Around the beginning of last year, Taco Bell and Inkling began talking about how to improve the company’s communications plan. “One big driver for us is that Taco Bell has always been known for its innovative messages to consumers,” says Onyett. “We knew we had to reach our team members with messaging that was just as creative.”

A plan was developed to integrate the necessary information into a format that works with Inkling’s mobile platform, adding video to enhance the experience and interactive quizzes to measure the system’s effectiveness. However, two elements needed to be addressed for the system to work.

The first was Wi-Fi, common in many retail locations though not in all Taco Bell restaurants. The other was how to get company mobile devices into team members’ hands. The Wi-Fi challenge was addressed by encouraging restaurant franchisees to make the addition of behind-the-counter Wi-Fi a priority and to make sure they knew that when they accessed the system through the Inkling app, they could get to the materials they needed without Wi-Fi since the system downloads information passively.

For the tablets, the company emphasized how much more efficient employee training can be with mobile devices, showing managers that an employee using a handheld tablet at a work station will better learn the material and need less supervision afterward.

“When a team member is onboarded, they have to take 22 online courses and learn 22 job activities,” Onyett says. “With our older system, this meant the new employee would get onto the learning-management system in the backroom and hammer out these tasks. It wasn’t learning as much as something to get through.

“One big driver for us is that Taco Bell has always been known for its innovative messages to consumers. We knew we had to reach our team members with messaging that was just as creative.”
— Ferril Onyett

“With the new system, the manager gives the team member a tablet and has them follow along with a lesson that incorporates text and video. The employee completes it better prepared and is more knowledgeable about what they need to do.”

The company also started on a two-track process to assist those restaurants that haven’t upgraded their Wi-Fi.

“The system will work just as well when accessed on a PC in the backroom as well as on a mobile device,” MacInnis says, “so while they make the transition, franchise owners can get all the benefits of the learning tool.”

Training made easier

One issue facing Taco Bell is common to nearly any company looking to reach its workforce digitally — what to do about an employee’s own device. Even though the staffer may be amenable to downloading a company app, there are legal issues.

“There are many states and countries where labor laws regulate how hourly employees can be contacted,” MacInnis says. “If it’s perceived that they’re receiving company training when they’re off the clock, it can leave the company vulnerable to a class-action suit. That’s why it’s recommends they use the app on company-owned devices only.”

The Taco Bell workforce didn’t require extensive training for the Inkling system since it’s based on intuitive aspects that almost anyone who’s used a smartphone or tablet has experience with.

“Seeing that training could be made easier was a big plus, as well as the fact that company information was easily found,” Onyett says. “We had webinars for our general managers before the rollout, and the response was good, although some may have been a little cautious.”

Like many large organizations, Taco Bell also had to figure out how to make its workforce comfortable with a wide-ranging technological change. “Some of our more tenured managers were a little resistant to the new system, and we had to find a way to reach them,” Onyett says.

“What we did was have those team members who were more tech-savvy take the lead to show how it works. It was a little different at first since you’d see a 20-something teaching a 50-something manager, but it worked out well. Plus, it gave some of the newer people a chance to become broader leaders in the company.”

In June, Taco Bell tested Inkling across 90 stores and saw significant results. Customer satisfaction scores with new menu launches increased 5 percent in the trial stores, which the company attributed to the improvement in employee training. The system was rolled out across all stores in September, and the response has been positive.

“We’re seeing about 150,000 employee course completions per month on the system,” Onyett says, “so we know it’s being used, and the feedback from managers has been great.”

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.

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