The McDonaldization of Our Army: Efficiency Trumping Adaptability

McDonald Pic

This post pulls from academic literature regarding how principles of the famous fast-food restaurant, McDonalds, are coming to dominate more and more aspects of American society, and thus the US Army.

George Ritzer authored the book, The McDonaldization of Society, in 1995, which has been updated and republished several times since. His thesis claims that five major principles of the fast-food chain have come to dominate increasing sectors of American society (and the world): efficiency, calculability, predictability, control, and ultimately the irrationality of hyper-rationality.1

Following this line of thought, two USMA professors, LTC (Dr.) Remi Hajjar and Dr. Morten Ender, applied the McDonaldization concept to the Army. They argued in their article, “McDonaldization in the U.S. Army: A Threat to the Profession,” which appeared in the 2005 book, The Future of the Army Profession, that McDonaldization severely threatens the Army as a profession by causing it to act more like a bureaucracy than a profession.2

Defining McDonaldization

The research from Ritzer, and others, show that the success of McDonalds and the fast-food industry are due to the factors of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. Operationally, these factors are defined as:

  • Efficiency: most economical method of getting from point A to B.3
  • Calculability: emphasizing the quantitative aspects of products and services; quantity is emphasized over quality.4
  • Predictability: uniformity; assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales.5
  • Control: institutional systems exerting control over people, usually through technology; lends to de-skilling, where human skills are being replaced by nonhuman technologies. This permits the increased use of unskilled labor.6

These “rational” factors (intended for efficiency) lead to a dimension of irrationality (inefficiency), which tends to be the dark side of a hyper-efficiency focused organization. The consequences of hyper-efficiency ultimately become inefficiency, where people (employees and customers) are so directed and regulated that they cannot necessarily behave like human beings.7 Essentially, hyper-efficiency creates robust levels of red tape, rendering systems inefficient. Ultimately, such inadequacies lead bureaucracies to lose control of people, workers, and customers alike; they all become powerless to the system.

The McDonaldized Army

In their article, Hajjar and Ender address several key symptoms of a McDonaldized Army, first being the Army’s career development model. The centralized system of rigid promotion timelines and required key development billets makes leader career progression predictable, controlled, and calculable.8 Practically speaking, this is manifested in officers being discouraged from pursuing unique opportunities from the operational Army mainstream. As an example, my own current endeavor of achieving a graduate degree and becoming a USMA Tactical Officer (TAC) in fact met resistance from several leaders that I respect and worked for. Further, over an estimated half of my graduating class from USMA are no longer serving on active duty; many attest their reasons for leaving to symptoms of our “McDonaldized Army.”

This system creates strategic leaders who lack the necessary politico-military skills, which often lead to failure. Also, junior leaders’ professional development is stifled with development assignments that are too-short. Thus, they feel as less capable leaders.9 As I imagine many can relate, I’ve experienced too many platoon leaders complete only six to nine months of platoon leader time, yet have an OER cover the full 12 months; it meets requirements on paper, but the leaders are underdeveloped in the long-run. Further, during my command, all three of my XOs were restricted to nine months in position due to an arbitrary battalion rule. Lastly, too many commanders change out of position at the 12-month mark, missing what I considered to be the best months of my command experience. It was in the 14 to 18-month window that I had the good fortune to see the impacts of changes I worked hard to bring about in the company.

The Army’s training management systems are also a result of McDonaldization. Over-centralized training, excessive training management tracking systems, and over-tasking all breed micromanagement.  Over-stressed organizations then develop dysfunctional “zero-defects” rigidity that stifles effectiveness.10 As a result, micromanaged leaders are unable to fulfill their potential, cannot enact their creative prowess, and are unable to act independently; leaders eventually overwhelmingly are unable to see the impact of their efforts.11 As a commander, I spent much more time than desired on training management “reporting tools,” which included DTMS training calendars, a company master activities calendar on Outlook, weekly battalion training meeting slides, and so on. Though all are intended for organizational synchronization and shared understanding, the time committed to these efforts resulted in them becoming irrational. Over-reporting happens at every level in the Army; it is a “rationality” that has become an “irrationality.”

The effect of McDonaldization on the Army’s training management runs counter to everything Gen. Milley currently preaches regarding the demands that the future operating environment (OE) will place on our leaders, especially junior leaders. As many across the Army experience, low-level collective training (Squad and Platoon) windows lend just enough time to train what will be tested at the platoon, company, and battalion certifying events, and their unit’s designated Combat Training Center (CTC) rotation. Training rarely, if at all, encompasses creative field training exercises (FTXs) that challenge leader innovation, the ability to learn from failure, and develop other relevant skills needed to succeed in potential future OEs of ambiguity and uncertainty.

An Alternate View of the Problem

In his book, Team of Teams, Gen (Ret) Stanley McChrystal noted that with the coming of the 21st century, our world (and its associated challenges) moved from complicated to complex. The predominating organizational focus across all industries, including the Army, of efficiency is no longer sufficient for organizational success, let alone survival. Adaptability needs to become just as essential, if not more so, as efficiency. In fact, research conducted in 1992 by John Kotter (author of Leading Change) and James Heskett found that corporate cultures mainly defined by adaptability enjoyed higher long-term success.

Chiefly, the Army, like all major enduring organizations, suffers from cultural lag. Cultural lag refers to the notion that culture (organizational or societal) takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag. For this application, I consider “technological innovations” from the definition to include prioritized organizational adaptability. Deeply rooted in the ways of organizational efficiency, the Army has not yet adapted in order to respond to the new OE of the 21st century. The symptoms of cultural lag – poor career management, overly-centralized training management, the stifling of innovation, and other unfortunate artifacts of our current culture – are the root causes of problems the Army faces right now like retention, job satisfaction, and even anti-intellectualism attitudes.

Now What: No McLeadership

Hajjar and Ender conclude that their main concern is an over-focus on new technology coupled with a failure to capitalize on contemporary expert knowledge in the social and behavioral sciences.12 They state that if McDonaldization persists, or becomes more widespread, the Army will devolve into a classic governmental bureaucracy, void of a professional core.13 Some may argue that we are already there.

Leaders, at all levels, need to not only be aware of, but actively seek to alter the conditions that breed McDonaldization. I conclude this post with a series of questions in the graphic below, posed by Hajjar and Ender at the end of their article.14 It is a series of questions structured under the four dimensions of McDonaldization to ensure that your leadership prevents a hyper-efficient focus and attitude. I encourage leaders to reflect on these questions, and the ones I propose at the end, through the lens of leader development. Ensure your leadership encompasses development, not merely performance.

McD Questions

Further Reading

If interested in further reading, I recommend the following literature, much of which drove the content of this post.

Leader Questions

  • What are other symptoms of the Army’s McDonaldized culture and how are they impacting effectiveness?
  • This post only regards the costs of a McDonaldized Army. Do you find benefits to it? Is there a balance?
  • What are other ways that leaders, at any level, can help mitigate this prevailing Army culture?


Hajjar, R., & Ender, M. G. (2005). McDonaldization in the U.S. Army: A Threat to the Profession. In D. Snider & L. Matthews (Eds.), The Future of the Army Profession (Ch. 27). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.


  1. Hajjar & Ender, 1.
  2. Ibid., 12
  3. Ibid., 3
  4. Ibid., 4
  5. Ibid., 5
  6. Ibid., 6
  7. Ibid., 8
  8. Ibid., 14
  9. Ibid., 14
  10. Ibid., 17
  11. Ibid., 18
  12. Ibid., 22
  13. Ibid., 22
  14. Ibid., 24

Picture credit: Iwo Jima McDonalds Flag, by Banksy

One thought on “The McDonaldization of Our Army: Efficiency Trumping Adaptability

  1. A poignant, thought-provoking article, Josh well-supported anecdotally. When leaders strip their subordinates of autonomy, subordinates vote w/ their feet, leaving the organization. If, as you assert, the Chief of Staff of the Army endorses junior leaders’ seizing responsibility and accountability on complex battlefields, these same junior leaders should train as they will fight during garrison duty. This all boils down to positive, proactive leadership and trust in subordinates coupled w/ coaching and mentoring.


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