The Main Thing… and McDonald’s

The year was 1976. I was 8 years old, and my brother was 5. We were riding in the back seat of the family car on the way home from a long, tiring day of errands and appointments, when we suddenly stopped our bickering.

We’d both heard it at the same time – our parents were whispering in the front seat, but we’d caught one thing – a word that made our hearts leap with joy. This word made our mouths water. It made us smile. It made us sit up straight in the back seat and try to look angelic. The car slowed down to turn and yes, there it was under those wonderful golden arches – the word “McDonald’s!”

Ah, the home of cheeseburgers, french fries and chocolate shakes! We probably only got to go there once or twice a year. The rest of the time we had to eat at home, where all Mom cooked was fresh, healthy food and we never ate sugar because it made my brother hyperactive. My father didn’t like McDonald’s… but we did, and so did the rest of the world.

By the 1980s, McDonald’s was as dominant as any fast food chain could hope to be. It was probably the world’s most-recognized brand because it was comparatively huge. McDonald’s was twice the size of the next largest competitor. It was a real success story.

But then, in 1986, they had their first real disaster, and they learned a lesson – a lesson that leaders can learn from and apply.

What happened in the 1980’s was that McDonald’s lost its focus. It was the most successful fast-food chain, but that wasn’t enough. It did burgers, fries and shakes with great efficiency and profitability, but instead of focusing on what it did best, McDonald’s wanted more. They decided to make McPizza.

The company spent years developing a pizza oven, but it was so big they had to remodel their kitchens. Next, they realized their pizza box didn’t fit through their drive-thru windows, so they had to enlarge the windows. Overall, the pizza process slowed down production. This cut into the efficiency and profitability that had made them so successful. After spending millions of dollars and several years figuring it out, McDonald’s launched the product they thought could make them the nation’s lead supplier of pizza.

It did not. The project was a complete failure. Pizza service was slow, cost was high, and adding the new product dragged down the whole operation. Looking back, it’s easy to see that McDonald’s lost focus on what they did best. The lesson they learned was that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Their main focus had always been burgers, and by going off on this pizza tangent, they sacrificed their most important core values of speed and efficiency, and then failed to create a competitive pizza.

Given the current pace of change, I think organizations are having a hard time keeping the main thing the main thing. Too often, companies respond to shifting pressures without deeply considering the long-term impact of their reactions.

As a result, organizations begin to wander. For a season, the team is focused and motivated to move in a single direction. They see the vision and they want to be part of it.  But then, something happens. Conflicts slow them down. Other stuff catches their attention. Unexpected external changes catch them by surprise. Other priorities come up. The urgency that was once so acutely felt fades to the background. Slowly, the organization drifts toward giving time, energy, and resources to just reacting… just existing… just keeping busy. The mission is no longer central; the focus is no longer intense. The experts call this “mission drift,” and they say that it happens to the best organizations with the best people who have the best intentions.

An illustration:
One Saturday, Joe drives to town to pick up a few groceries. Before he gets to the grocery store he notices a good price for gas, so Joe stops in there to fill up. While inside paying, he realizes he’s hungry, so he gets a hot dog. He’s in the car eating the hot dog when he looks in the rear-view mirror and notices that his hair is getting a little long. The barber shop is right next door, so he drops in for a trim. From there he returns home without the milk and eggs he set out to get in the first place. That is “mission drift.” It’s what happens when we fail to keep the main thing the main thing.

Questions from the Coach:

  • If you had to describe your organization’s “main thing” in ten words or less, could you do it?
  • Review all of the organization’s current initiatives. How many are related to the “main thing?”
  • If you discover extraneous initiatives that expose “mission drift,” how willing are you to make a course correction?

To help executives stay focused on what matters most, I use a one-page tool call the Leader’s Dashboard. The tool forces a leader to define the “main thing” in their organization as described by their vision, mission, values, strategic edge, initiatives, metrics, relationships, and development opportunities. The tool brings clarity, and clarity allows focus on what really matters. To learn more, reach out anytime:

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