What Government Can Learn from In-N-Out

Key to Success: Focus on What You Do Best

by / May 6, 2008

Even if you're not from California, Arizona or Nevada, you've probably heard of a fast food restaurant chain called In-N-Out. Since its founding 60 years ago, the burger franchise has built a rabidly loyal customer base even though it almost never advertises on TV.

In-N-Out owes its success to a number of factors that separate the company from the rest of the fast food flock. First, each location is always - I mean always - impeccably clean. Second, In-N-Out treats its employees very well.

Starting "associates" earn $10 an hour - a much higher wage than other fast food joints and comparable to some entry-level white collar jobs. Full-time employees are offered an extensive benefits package and restaurant managers generally earn more than $100,000 a year.

But what really makes ex-West Coasters living in the Midwest or on the East Coast long for In-N-Out? The food.

While most restaurants offer near-endless choices of mediocre food, an In-N-Out menu offers a total of 10 items: a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a Double-Double (a double cheeseburger), french fries, milk shakes, soda, coffee, lemonade, iced tea and milk. And therein lies the secret to In-N-Out's perpetual popularity: In-N-Out does one thing, which is make hamburgers, and they do it better than anyone else. It's a business model that seems to have fallen out of favor with organizations, both public and private, especially those that deal in technology.

Look around your organization. Do you do one thing better than anyone else? Or do you continually roll out new, questionably relevant products or services in an attempt to fill ever more obscure niches? Have you ever visited a Web site that offered a host of services, only to find that the services don't work that well? Have you ever done business with a company that keeps launching new, more specialized products while their mainstays suffer?

Just compare In-N-Out to McDonald's. While McDonald's routinely launches new menu items, In-N-Out never has. And 99 people out of 100 would take a Double-Double over any McDonald's sandwich.

Depending on your line of work, it may seem impossible to do one thing and do it better than anyone else. It may just be out of your control. But even if your organization adheres to a quantity-over-quality strategy, that doesn't mean you have to. In-N-Out doesn't advertise anywhere but on billboards because their customers do the advertising for them. A government Web site, for example, should operate the same way. Citizens should know about it not because it keeps adding new services, but because the services it offers are excellent.

Trying to be all things to all people is a tried-and-true business practice, but the result is usually a line of products that are of average or worse quality. If you have the guts to do one thing better than anyone else, loyal customers will line up. In-N-Out's slogan used to be "That's what a hamburger's all about." They proved it by making the best hamburger around. What's your organization all about?

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.