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How did Waffle House, a company that did not even accept credit cards as a form of payment until 2006, create a culture of learning so committed to the utilization of technology?

Did you know that Waffle House, the beloved 24-hour restaurant chain, serves 25,000 miles of bacon every year? That’s a lot of bacon. Did you know that Waffle House also blows the rest of our client base away when it comes to mobile learning? A whopping 76% of their total Exceed logins consistently occur on a mobile device. That’s incredible when you consider the average mobile login across our top 20 clients is less than 16%. Even amongst our largest tech clients, mobile adoption barely breaks 30%. How did Waffle House, a company that did not even accept credit cards as a form of payment until 2006, create a culture of learning so committed to the utilization of technology?

The Challenge
The first thing you need to know is that Waffle House grows its leadership internally. Every Waffle House manager begins their career working in a single Waffle House restaurant, and 50% of their compensation is based on performance in the field. This homegrown approach to leadership ensures that managers are always learning from their superiors, who have been in their exact shoes before. “That’s a huge part of the culture, being able to rely on that next level person to be able to teach you and educate you,” says Lindsay Westcott, Waffle House’s vice president of culture and training.

The second thing you need to know is that Waffle House restaurants are intentionally low-tech. When asked when the restaurants will be adding wifi for customers, training director Chris Carter laughs. “We probably never will, intentionally,” he says. “Our restaurants only recently got broadband.” And that broadband supports one thing: the restaurants’ administrative system. Monthly training videos are delivered to the restaurants in a format that some younger employees may not even recognize - DVDs - and looped on a TV in the back of the house, outside of customer view. Westcott explains further: “From a technology standpoint, we’re the last to the party. But it’s intentional. We want to invest time and money in people,” not technology (as you will read, one caveat to that is learning).

The third thing you need to know is that Waffle House values its down-home, country-style, old fashioned, any-time-day-or-night service above all else. The focus is always on the customers and customer service, and even the restaurants are designed to deliver the optimal customer experience. “We keep the footprint of each restaurant small,” Westcott explains. “We want each customer to be able to see the show - the grill.” Emphasis is on delivering a high standard of customer service no matter what time, day or night, and each employee - from the CEO to the average Associate - will jump on the grill during a rush. This dedication to service is drilled into all managers from day one, during their 12-week  onboarding before their final week of training at Waffle House University, located within Waffle House headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

But once this initial onboarding is over, operators (4,000+ in total) spend the majority of their time in the field, managing the company’s 50,000+ hourly employees in person, store-by-store. With a mobile operations team and a steady growth plan, Waffle House knew that the only way to maintain such an extremely high level of customer service was to develop a strong culture of learning - one that jived with the unique Waffle House culture.

The Solution
Waffle House became an Intellum client in 2008. At that time, the company was much more low-tech than it is today. But Waffle House realized that employee training was a critical component of successful growth. So the company began searching for a learning technology partner who could help develop an impactful approach to Waffle House’s unique challenge, and it found that partner in Intellum.

Initially, Waffle House focused on a very traditional approach, creating a top-down, directed learning environment within Exceed that relied heavily on the delivery of SCORM courses. This is certainly a viable path and, as Westcott puts it, the program “successfully checked the box.”

In true Waffle House fashion, Westcott transitioned from managing 30 restaurants to the training and development team in 2013 and, along with Carter, began questioning the standard, traditional approach to enterprise learning. “We have such a unique, restaurant-centric, quirky, approachable culture, we wanted learning to mirror the way our business actually operates,” says Westcott. “How do we get training to all the employees? How do we make it more approachable?”

The answer, for Waffle House, was video. Carter had been experimenting with video before Westcott’s move, but like the learning environment itself, it wasn’t quite right. “We hired a creative agency to develop some really slick, really expensive longer-form videos that completely missed the mark. The quality was great. They just weren’t us,” says Carter.

So he began tinkering with video himself. “For a maintenance video, we can show you how to pull a specific part off and replace it in 45 seconds. That’s all we needed.” The homegrown, authentic feel of the short, bite-sized videos resonated with employees - and it simply took off from there. Videos became a main channel for learning and crossed a wide variety of topics and function areas - and lengths. While some of the in-depth modules can creep up to thirty minutes in length, that’s certainly not the norm. “We shoot for between five to eight minutes for learning content, while technical, maintenance focused content can be much shorter,” says Westcott. “But it’s rare we go past ten minutes.”

As video was picking up steam with employees, Waffle House worked closely with Intellum to build a custom video tool that would allow them to reliably disseminate, track and report on consumption (this technology solution has now been rolled into Exceed itself and is now available to all clients). But the key to the success of the video initiative was mobile access. The restaurant managers work mostly from their cars or from restaurants, which remain low-tech. Everyone, however, has a smartphone on them. The combination of culture-authentic, bite-size videos delivered through an easy to access, mobile-friendly, consumer-like learning tool pushed engagement through the roof.

Today, managers have access to hundreds and hundreds of videos as well as formal and informal learning assets on a wide range of topics. Required “monthly mission” modules present new, more complex ideas while short videos from EVPs extend Waffle House’s Open Door Policy, making culture and information accessible to everyone. Onboarding paths provide managers with the tools they need to succeed in their new role, and Waffle House even produces its own annual blooper reels compiled from the outtakes of all the video it creates in-house.

“At the end of the day, one of the things we always joke about is the fact that it's just bacon and eggs. We can't take ourselves too seriously - and we have a fun culture. I think that's why people stay with us and love us,” says Carter. “At the end of the day, it's about communicating with the people who are working 24 hours a day for us. As long as we stay focused on that, we're going to be successful.”

Measuring Success
Whether they are motivated by personal goals, professional feedback or an on the spot demand, the goal is to provide Waffle House employees with the specific information they need at the exact moment in which they need it. “All of our managers have access to the content and Intellum’s tools. But the mobile functionality means that managers can simply hand their mobile device downline to an associate and have that person watch the targeted video, too. That’s how we get into the nitty gritty, and that wouldn’t be possible without Intellum” says Westcott. 

“A big measurable for Waffle House, and for me, is consistency - consistency in the customer experience and consistency in the way the restaurants run. As a result of all this effort, we have tracked a significant improvement in consistency, which leads to positive improvements within the business as a whole,” says Westcott. “But I personally find success in our ability to support our teams. When a request comes in, and we can point them to this video, or that path because we’ve already addressed the most common problems or topics, that’s a great place for us to be.”

“Our approach to learning is different and fun. Intellum allows us to make it interesting and easy to digest and that has been huge for us,” says Westcott.

Cover Photo: "Waffle House" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by luvsickmedia
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