Dr. Edwin Locke pioneered goal-setting theory in the 1960s, finding that specific and difficult goals produce better results than easy or vague goals. In 1990, he and Dr. Gary Latham expanded their research and found for goals to be most effective, they should focus on clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback and task complexity. Using that framework can help those in the fast-food industry find the best ways to motivate their employees to meet challenging objectives.


Setting a specific goal that’s time-bound gives employees a clear path to success. Rather than offering general guidelines or vague visions for how you want your fast-food restaurant to operate, give workers measurable standards to reach. For example, fast-food restaurants have to get people in and out the door quickly. A goal like "get people out the door quicker" doesn't tell employees what that means or their role in accomplishing it. Give the workforce a specific target, such as "lower the average time required to fill customer orders by six seconds over a 60-day period," and supplement that by providing employees with clear individual goals for their portion of the team effort. The worker on the grill, for example, might have a goal of increasing the number of hamburgers produced in an hour by 10 to ensure more are on the way whenever a cashier takes an order for one.


Goals should be difficult, but attainable. A goal that simply matches the established level of performance doesn’t increase capabilities and sends a signal that the metric is less important, while a pie-in-the-sky goal can be counterproductive if employees consider it out of reach and become demoralized. For example, if you know that the top major fast-food chains have an average service time of about 2:25 minutes per drive-thru customer, making the goal for your restaurant to serve drive-thru customers within two minutes will likely be considered too unrealistic for your employees to care about. If your current average time is 2:55, however, a goal to cut five seconds off of that number within a 90-day period might have more impact while still providing a challenging bar to reach.


For goals to work, both employers and employees must commit to them. Giving employees individual attention and encouraging them to commit to goals for their career development can increase engagement and motivate them to improve their performance. An employee who hopes to run her own fast-food franchise one day, for example, might set a goal to complete training required to be a shift manager, to improve her personal speed at fulfilling orders, or to increase the customer service ratings while serving as a cashier from 87 percent to 90 percent. Since those goals likely coincide with your overall business goals, getting that commitment to stretch targets benefits you both.


Feedback allows owners and managers to show employees their progress and indicate where changes need to be made. Data-driven feedback and explicit direction serves the greatest purpose. Clearly tell employees what they are doing well and what needs improvement. If your restaurant constantly scores low for customer service on consumer surveys, for example, give employees a path to improvement -- such as saying "please" and "thank you" to every customer, smiling and making eye contact. Track not only your overall customer service scores, but also how many customers reported that their cashiers performed those tasks. Report those numbers to your team on a regular basis to track progress.


Consider task complexity when setting goals and determining the best path to reach them. Make sure the goals don’t overwhelm employees. Instead, give them the proper direction to accomplish them. For example, if your restaurant expands its offerings to include espresso beverages like lattes and cappuccinos, that's a different skill than brewing a pot of drip coffee or grilling hamburgers. Make sure employees get the training they need to master the new skill and meet customer expectations before you make them responsible for making the beverages during the breakfast rush.