Case Study

Yo Quiero Learning!

By Ave Rio


hosts of menus past include the Naked Chicken Chalupa, Cheetos Burrito and Chicken Biscuit Taco. The Mexican-inspired fast-food giant Taco Bell is known for creating unique limited-time offers multiple times a year. But with each new menu item comes the need to train employees on how to prepare and serve it.

That’s where Taco Bell saw room for improvement. Ferril Onyett, director of learning and organizational development at Yum, Taco Bell’s parent company, said the past couple of years have been a journey to simplify and enhance team member experience.

“We wanted to make it easier for employees to get training materials and easier to understand why we launch the products that we do and how it relates to our customer insights,” she said. “It’s been quite a challenge going from all in-person training six or seven years ago to more of a blended approach with online, on-the-job activities and classroom learning.”

Through this transformation, the learning materials were spread out across multiple platforms. Taco Bell needed a place where all employees could go to access everything they need in one spot. To accomplish that goal, Taco Bell partnered with digital content distribution company Inkling to create a searchable library of content for all training materials that could be accessed both online and offline from any device.

“If you think about Taco Bell from a food perspective, we really are innovative. We’ve got lots of new products, we lead in social innovation, and one of the things that’s important to us is that our team member experience is pretty innovative as well,” Onyett said.

Uno, Dos, Tres

Michelle Kelso-Kay, Taco Bell’s director of learning and development, said they rolled out the program in three phases.

First, they upgraded their LMS to have one central landing page where employees could look for content.

Phase two involved converting the format of all standard operating procedures to dynamic, interactive “Inkdocs.” In addition to hyperlinks and videos/sound clips that can be included in an interactive PDF, Inkdocs include flashcards, quizzes, self-assessments, timelines and more. They also can be accessed online or offline. When an employee opens an Inkdoc, the content can be downloaded directly to their mobile device, whether it’s a personal device or a shared device made available on-site. When the user comes back online, the content is automatically updated.


Fast-food giant Taco Bell created a searchable library of all learning materials to improve training for frequently changing menu items.

Kelso-Kay said six or seven years ago there was an effort to digitize seven print encyclopedias containing all the standard operating procedures that Taco Bell used to print and mail to employees. The encyclopedias were turned into static PDFs and housed on the company intranet, which wasn’t ideal in terms of accessibility and searchability. Converting the standards into Inkdocs brought life back into them and made them accessible in the restaurants, Kelso-Kay said.

Julie Williamson, chief growth enabler and managing director at business management consultant Karrikins Group and co-author of “Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value and Become the Obvious Choice,” commends Taco Bell for making the PDFs more accessible.

“That shift is critical and it’s often hard to do because people have often invested a lot in a PDF or static format, and they are sometimes afraid to step away from it,” Williamson said.

Taco Bell is currently undertaking phase three of the project, which involves rolling out new-hire digital workbooks to all restaurants, allowing them to stop printing the books. “Things change often and we’re always updating and always redesigning and streamlining content that we have to print on demand, which increases costs,” Kelso-Kay said. “Moving all of that content to a digital workbook through Inkling allows [employees] to highlight and make notes and truly have their own digital copy.”

Before this change, Taco Bell was paying $35 for a new book for every new hire. “With the high turnover, that’s really important for a restaurant,” Kelso-Kay said.

They anticipate saving $2 million per year by discontinuing the printing and shipping of workbooks.

Looking ahead, Kelso-Kay sees a lot of potential on the horizon for the digital workbooks. “We were in a spot where we had to move literally thousands of pages of content into Inkling, so now that it’s in there and it’s live and people are using it, we can really start looking at the metrics behind the scenes to dig deeper.”

“Stale content is probably about as useful as stale taco shells.”

— Julie Williamson, managing director, Karrikins Group

Williamson said digitizing the books is a great idea, but she wonders if there is another way to commemorate the moment of starting a new job for employees.

“It is an interesting side effect that when you take away something that seems as underutilized as a new hire handbook, you also lose the utility of giving someone something that binds them closer to the organization,” she said. “It would be worthwhile to think about other ways of marking people starting within the organization as well as progressing through training and L&D opportunities.”

Williamson said those tangible reminders and acknowledgments are important from a brand and an attrition perspective, which is a major challenge in the quick-service restaurant industry.

Spicing Up Training

While Taco Bell is still in the process of launching the program nationally, it completed a market test with about 100 restaurants, in which Kelso-Kay said employees responded positively.

Kelso-Kay said the search functionality has been a huge win for team members, as they are now able to go in and search for anything and have it pop up easily. As for drawbacks, Kelso-Kay said they ran into expected technical issues while making sure all technologies were aligned, but after a slowdown they were ultimately able to sort through all the issues.

Kelso-Kay said the two biggest training programs are new-hire training, which is all on-the-job training done on tablets in the restaurants, and limited-time offer promotions for new menu items. She said new menu items debut every four to six weeks and all 7,000 restaurants must conduct on-the-job training and practice prior to each new launch.

While the training itself has mostly remained unchanged (job-specific e-learning course, an on-the-job practice component and performance support tools), before the new system everything typically had to fit on to one page to lower printing costs. Kelso-Kay said they’ve now been able to look at the content in a different way without that constraint.

“Stale content is probably about as useful as stale taco shells,” Williamson said. “Being able to clear out the old content and get rid of it so that it’s not cluttering up the space and creating a distraction for the learners is really important. It seems like they have made a pivot to where they are looking much more dynamically at their content.”

Another aspect of the platform that drew Taco Bell to Inkling was the ability to track training completion. “When companies track training completion, 90 percent of the time it’s really just around e-learning completion, but that’s only 40 to 50 percent of the training experience,” Kelso-Kay said. “Having a system that allows us to track our on-the-job practice and any tools that were used was really important to us.”

Kelso-Kay said in the stores that have implemented the Inkling system they have seen a huge increase in employees accessing the content. Onyett said once they can see results from the on-the-job component, they expect they will be able to better isolate improvements and business results caused by the program. However, in the market test they did see a 5 percent increase in customer satisfaction score with new menu launches in restaurants using the new system versus those locations that hadn’t adopted it yet.

“Many of these restaurants are operating in a pretty competitive market for employees, so you have to see L&D as an asset and a competitive differentiator for winning the war for talent,” Williamson said. “You have to be able to provide operational training as well as interactional or communication training.” She said the next challenge for Taco Bell will be to leverage the effects of this new program effectively in the stores and convert the workforce over to it.

Kelso-Kay said going forward, the company will stay focused on meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s demographic instead of pushing out content for the lowest common denominator. “We’re focused a lot on our next generation of workers … and really thinking through how they like to consume content and how they learn more in bite-sized chunks,” she said. “So we’re really thoughtful and strategic around how we push out content in a way that’s not only efficient and effective but in a way our team members want to access it.”

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at