1991 Innovation Optimas Award ProfileBRMrs. Fields Inc

After opening her first cookie store in Palo Alto, California, in 1977, Debbi Fields discovered pretty quickly that she was onto something. By 1983, she was sure: Sales in her 160 stores in 17 states and Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney had reached $30 million.

But by this time, the company was moving into territory into which few retail operations had dared to venture. Despite its size, Mrs. Fields, Inc., was still a non-franchised company and had every intention of staying that way.

The reasoning behind this strategy was that the management skills Debbi used in her first store had made the company successful, so why not continue implementing them? To accomplish this successfully, Debbi and her husband, Randy, who’s president of Mrs. Fields’ parent company, decided that the company’s management structure would have to remain flat.

From the beginning, Randy realized this would be no easy task, which is why he began thanking about it as soon as the second Mrs. Fields store was opened. By 1984, he and Paul Quinn, the company’s vice president of management information systems, had found a solution: Retail Operations Intelligence (ROI), an innovative computer software system.

For its efforts, Mrs. Fields Cookies has been recognized as one of PERSONNEL JOURNAL’s 1991 Optimas Award winners. The award is given annually to companies that display excellence in human resources management in 10 categories, which range from managing change to global outlook. Mrs. Fields Cookies was the winner in the Innovation category.

ROI is a computer system that links the 650 Mrs. Fields cookie emporiums and bakeries to its company headquarters in Park City, Utah. Simply stated, the system allows store managers, district managers and regional directors across the country to have daily contact via computer with Debbi and the rest of the company’s top administrative staff.

According to Quinn, this contact is accomplished through two avenues. FormMail, the company’s own version of electronic mail, allows employees to ask specific questions of anyone in the company, even Debbi, with a promised response within 24 to 48 hours. The other avenue is the automatic electronic flow of information and operating results, which is the heart of the ROI system.

“If managers are freed administratively, they have more time for their staff and customers.”

—Randy Fields, Mrs. Fields Inc.

There are 20 modules, or applications, of the ROI system. They range from production planning and inventory to interviewing and sales reporting and analysis. It’s these applications that allow Debbi’s management skills to be spread throughout the company to help employees sell lots of cookies, which is critical to Mrs. Fields’ success because it doesn’t sell high-ticket items.

For example, Debbi set hourly sales quotas for herself in her Palo Alto store and baked up the day’s inventory based on daily experience. It was also her policy (and still is) not to sell a product that’s more than two hours old.

Through the production planning module, store managers know how many units of a particular cookie they can expect to sell to meet projections from hour to hour, how much dough must be prepared and when to bake to maximize sales and minimize loss. The system charts hourly progress versus projections and makes suggestions on how to keep selling cookies.

Because the ROI system tracks sales continuously through the cash register, it provides everyone from Debbi on down to district and store managers with each day’s results. By pressing a few keys on the computer, Debbi can tell which stores did the best that day and which did the worst, or which stores met their sales projections and which stores didn’t.

Quinn says one of the things Debbi loves to do is call up the performance test results first thing in the morning and start calling store managers right away to congratulate them on their performance. “People can’t believe that she knows so quickly how they did the day before,” says Quinn. “It makes them feel as if she’s watching and that she cares.”

Because the ROI system can do everything a manager can do—schedule a crew, interview an applicant, generate order supplies, produce sales reports and projections, administer a test, transmit a memo, assess a skill (all without the user’s ever touching paper or pencil), it reduces the time it takes store, district and regional managers to complete administrative paperwork by 60% to 70%.

“We have used technology to free employees to be with customers,” says Randy. “If managers are freed administratively, then they should have more time to spend with their staff and with the customer. It brings the whole organization closer to the customer.”

As a result, Quinn says Mrs. Fields has been able to hire the type of employee it needs to be successful: sales- and people-oriented individuals who would rather spend their time talking with customers or training other employees than sitting behind a desk doing administrative work.

“What was happening before is that we would try to hire a salesperson, but we would strap them with all this administrative work, and they would end up not liking the job,” says Quinn. “So it has allowed us to hire a different kind of individual, one who’s more beneficial to the company.”

Managers in charge of hiring people- and sales-oriented employees and then training and developing them to be successful at Mrs. Fields rely on the ROI system for help. Three of the system’s 20 modules—interviewing, skill assessment and computer-aided instruction—provide store managers with the guidance needed to conduct these human resources-oriented functions.

After conducting an initial interview, store managers have potential employees participate in a half-hour computer-aided interview that’s a part of the ROI system. Questions asked include: “As you grew up, how did you feel about school? How would you rate your intelligence? To what degree are you motivated by money? How often are you in low spirits? A lot of times I went against my parents’ wishes, true or false? Do you feel you have been successful in life?”

The interviewing module not only automates, but it also standardizes the interview process, promoting an unbiased evaluation and screening of the applicant. The program can generate its own probe questions, check for contradictory responses and provide a general or specific conclusion about the applicant and whether or not he or she should be hired.

“We can predict very well whether or not they’ll be successful with us,” says Cindy Reisner, director of human resources for Mrs. Fields. “During the last few years, we’ve been tracking information in the ROI database that allows us to look at the results of the top and bottom performers and compare the results of each applicant.”

Once an employee is hired, he or she then participates in the ROI skill assessment. This module tests the employees to make sure they’re qualified to do their job. It provides immediate grading with on-line tutorials for questions incorrectly answered and allows managers to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their employees. Personnel records are updated immediately with the test results for employee recognition and compensation, or remedial training. All employees participate in skills assessment every six months.

Employees who need extra instruction then use the computer-aided instruction module. This provides training geared to the pace and ability of each worker. Beneficial for employees in any position in the corporation, the computer instruction enables employees to learn new jobs for advancement and certification. Employees say they like it because wrong answers can be reviewed for immediate feedback.

“The ROI system has allowed Mrs. Fields to hire the type of employee it needs to be successful.”

—Paul Quinn, Mrs. Fields Inc.

Janet Osinski, manager of the Mrs. Fields Cookies store in the South Coast Plaza shopping center in Costa Mesa, California, says she finds the computer-aided instruction module to be extremely helpful. For example, when an employee wasn’t as effective on the job as she thought he could have been, she had him work on the computer located in the back of the store for a couple of hours. When he returned, his performance had improved.

“You tell employees that they need to sell more, but they don’t know how to do it,” says Osinski. “When I’ve had them work on the computer, they’ve told me, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that, or I didn’t realize I was supposed to be doing that.'”

In addition, the ROI system stores all employees’ personnel folders, which include all sorts of information that range from their attendance records and salaries to their addresses and disciplinary records. Because the human resources department is so highly automated, the ROI system has helped make it extremely efficient. Just five human resources employees, including Reisner, are needed to oversee the company’s more than 5,000 employees.

“Our productivity has gone way, way up,” says Reisner. “Rather than spending our time performing the clerical duties that we used to have to do, we can now use our time much more wisely.” Most of Reisner’s day, as well as the department’s, is now spent working one-on-one with employee problems, either in person or by phone.

Since the installation of the ROI system into the company’s operations (which began in 1985), Mrs. Fields has reported an increase in sales. And although the company won’t release figures, Randy says employee turnover is “substantially lower than other [companies’] in the fast-food industry, at each of the staff, assistant manager and manager levels.”

As a result, the company formed Fields Software Group, Inc., in 1988, to develop and market the ROI system. Since then, eight companies, most notably, Miami-based Burger King Corp., have agreed to purchase the system.

Perhaps the best example of the ROI system’s success is what it has helped employees, such as Nanette Mathieu, accomplish. In just four years, she was promoted from a store manager in the San Diego area to her current position as the company’s director of operations. Mathieu attributes much of her success to the software system.

“I’m a peopleperson. I like to have a good time working with them, developing them and teaching them,” says Mathieu. “The ROI system gave me the freedom to be able to do what I do best, and it did all the things that are, in my mind, just administrative work. If you’re supposed to be the expert and the manager who’s going to build sales, the last thing you should be doing is sitting at your desk working numbers.”

As a former store, district and regional manager, Mathieu says the ROI system was also a useful tool to motivate her and other employees. For example, every morning employees are given bonus reports to let them know how close they are to reaching their goals. Mathieu says that when the computer flashed the message, “Congratulations, you’re doing great, just keep it up,” it was so motivating.

Even more motivating were the calls she sometimes received from Debbi Fields congratulating her on the previous day’s performance. Before working at Mrs. Fields, Mathieu had worked in a grocery store bakery in which none of the employees knew who the president was—until he started appearing in local television commercials – – and receiving a call from him was unheard of.

“The employees in our stores know who Debbi is and know that she’s committed to them and cares about them,” says Mathieu, who adds, “This is the kind of thing that keeps people in retail today.”

Personnel Journal, September 1991, Vol. 70, No. 9, pp. 56-58.