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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Try your hand at running McDonald's

October 15, 2007

It's always fun when I find something on the Web that's highly critical, vaguely disgusting, entertaining and informative, all at once. Mollieindustria has created an online video game at w w w. m c v i d e o game.comthat lets you run the burger giant McDonald's, and while it's not sparing of the company's faults, it's a great study in how hard it is to keep the sandwich empire going.

The creators say on the site that they built the game to show Americans what prices they and the rest of the world pay to have those quarter-pounders on every street in the civilized world. They feature book covers from "Super Size Me" and "Fast Food Nation," just to drive the point home. But the game itself isn't entirely satirical. It's actually a good introduction to the complexities of supply chain, and I recommend it as a training aid to explain to employees just how tough it is to keep product flowing through an entire network of pipelines from the production of raw materials right to transportation and marketing of the final product.

The game has four sections, or operations. Counters at the bottom of the screen tally costs and profits in each section. Each operation requires that you make several decisions, balancing cost and outcome. The agricultural section, for example, caustically points out that, due to practical considerations, South America is the source of much of our beef. Here, you have to buy acreage for crops or grazing.

You then plant soy crops for human consumption, or even clear rainforest for more land. You buy cattle and put them on the various parcels of land. Of course, every move costs you money or exposes you to risk, which you must recoup later in the chain. To maximize your profits, you must balance out the land use.

One of the purposes of the soy crop is to fatten cattle in the feedlot, which is the second operation. There is a feedlot manager who tells you of problems, but it's usually too late to do any good. You can add industrial waste to the feed, if you like, as well as hormones. But you have to balance out the waste and hormones with the chance of epidemic among the cows. Inevitably, a cow will get sick and must be killed before slaughtering time, literally killing off some of your investment, but retaining its cost on the books. You can also add old animal products back into your feed, but that raises the chances of mad-cow disease. Afflicted animals must be eliminated, so again you lose money.

Then there is the store, the third operation. The store has a front line and back line, and you must hire appropriate numbers of employees to run them. You must also make sure that you have a good flow of burger meat into the store. If the feedlot is running low, you may be in trouble. You must manage your employees, praising the good ones and chastising the bad ones, if you can catch them. Occasionally, a back-line employee spits into a sandwich, for example. Customers come and go, their number depending on advertising effectiveness and the actions of anti-McDonald's activists.

And that leads us to the last operation, perhaps the most interesting of all: headquarters. Here, you must make long-term decisions that can affect customer attraction and retention for years to come. Marketing produces ads. Public relations polishes the corporate image, trying to counteract its critics. The board is made up of investors who are adamant about getting their money's worth out of the company, making it clear to you, the guy at the helm, that if they're not happy with you they'll dump you onto the cobblestones.

Each operation feeds into the others. For example, if you tinker with headquarters before you set up the other operations, you'll find yourself spending money you haven't made, because the rest of the supply chain is empty. This makes the board members grumpy and leads eventually to bankruptcy and a surly Ronald McDonald glaring at you from the screen. Along the way, you get curveballs, like a class-action lawsuit by obese people claiming you should have warned them about the potential for getting fat off the food.

It's a sometimes viciously critical denunciation of McDonald's and other fast-food firms, but at the same time it's sympathetic to the blizzard of interlocking demands and problems a company faces. It's unsparing in its economic reality-mess up anywhere along the chain, and ruin ensues eventually. It seems to be questioning McDonald's ethos, yet is eager to demonstrate the finesse required to be McDonald's.

Overcome your aversion to anti-corporate activism and let your employees play the game, so they can see how precarious our position in the corporate world really is.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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