You have three to five minutes to make quick service customers happy, which is longer than the typical prime-time TV commercial and shorter than it would take a customer to defrost a frozen burrito picked up at the grocery store. That’s an awfully thin margin of error. Yet customers expect your staff to be able to do it — day in and day out. If customers had the time for a sit-down dinner, there are plenty of other establishments that could fit the bill. But they’ve chosen your place, allotting 300 seconds of their valuable time to get what they want. Can your staff deliver? No question.

So why do things fall apart? Because you and your staff are trying to meet customers’ many other demands simultaneously. They want a quality meal, as ordered, consistent from one visit to the next and from location to location — and they want it right now. If service is fast but wrong, the problem can’t be justified by the busy lunch rush. If you can’t keep up the pace, you have no business in the quick-service business.

To manage that three- to five-minute time frame, first understand that you can’t manage time. It’s a dimension, not a thing. Instead, manage the employee activities that must take place during that window of opportunity. Scrutinize every stage in the process — taking orders, sending orders to the kitchen, cooking, assembling, bagging, delivery. Look for areas to streamline.

Be sure your line is designed for speed. Everything your cooks need should be within reach at all times. Your quick-service systems and procedures should maximize every millisecond. Eventually you’ll see where breakdowns occur and be able to make changes accordingly. If it’s a systems problem, re-design the system. If it’s an employee problem, re-train the employee. Practice, practice, practice until everyone can keep up the pace.

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