Drop the pitch. Raise the tone.


I heard a captivating little radio programme a while back about an experiment to prove that pitch (bitumen) is not a solid (as to all intents and purposes it appears to be) but in fact a liquid. The experiment has been running since 1930 at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. A camera is trained on a black shape and the experimenters wait……and wait…..and wait……to capture blobs of pitch as they drip down, agonisingly slowly, from their parent bulk.

In the programme Professor John Mainstone, who oversaw the experiment for more than 50 years until his death in August 2013, talked about how he missed observing the drops fall three times – by a day in 1977, by just five minutes in 1988 and, perhaps most annoying, in 2000, when the webcam that was recording it was hit by a 20-minute power outage.

The ninth ‘drop’ fell in April 2014 and you can watch all the action here.

It occurred to me that I’ve been running my own, very modest, experiment inspired by The Pitch Drop over the last few years.

I usually holiday somewhere in Europe with my family…..France or Italy…..occasionally Cyprus to visit family. Mostly we fly from Luton.

It has become something of a tradition to stop off at the McDonalds in Daventry on the way home for the final ‘treat’ of the holiday. It is usually the only time I venture into a McDonalds (once a year in Luton or McDonalds is generally enough for me).

What these regular but infrequent visits have allowed me to observe, however, is the impact of leadership. The quality of our annual visit to Maccie D’s is largely determined not by the decisions of whoever designs the menu or branding or pricing strategy in some Corporate Headquarters; but by whichever 20-something is in charge of the restaurant when we happen to walk in.

On our 2013 visit to Daventry the experience was pretty grim (for the purposes of my experiment I take it that I am not referring to the actual food on offer or this could seriously distort my findings). The experience was grim for a whole load of small reasons:

  • It took a long time for our order to be taken……by a very surly young man
  • When our order was ‘ready’ the coffees had been forgotten
  • The tables were dirty with empty cartons and spilled drinks everywhere
  • When the coffee arrived the milk was off
  • The bins were full
  • The toilets were dirty and there was no soap in the dispensers

There must have been someone in charge that day but it was not at all obvious who that person was.

This year it couldn’t have been more different:

  • There was a real ‘buzz’ amongst the young staff team behind the counter
  • The woman who took our order made eye contact, was engaged and friendly
  • When we went to sit down the tables were clean and free from rubbish
  • There was a member of staff proactively wiping tables and picking up items that had fallen on the floor
  • The toilets were spotless – soap dispensers full and no pools of water on the floor
  • When a milkshake order was mixed up a replacement was made and offered free without hesitation
  • The original milkshake was even taken round the restaurant to see if another customer would like this one free too

In fact the manager was very present throughout our visit; whether directing one of her team; speaking to customers or generally being very visible in the eating area as she checked that everything was as it should be.

She was an absolute credit to McDonalds.

Her name was Julie. I know because her name badge was there for all to see.

To my family’s acute embarrassment I told Julie how good I thought she was. (I tried to let McDonalds know too but boy did they make it hard to give positive feedback about one of their employees.)

I have been conducting my Daventry experiment for some years now and without fail there is a direct link between the quality of the manager….the leader….and the whole customer experience. Actually my experiment is not really very like the pitch drop. I only observe the changes due to the manager once a year because I only visit once a year. I bet regular customers can spot the changes almost straight away.

I was rather pleased with myself this year as I’d remembered to pack my little sticker card…..which finally had six coffee bean stickers covering the six spaces. This year I was going to get my coffee for free.

But as my youngest rather gleefully pointed out, although my card was full I wouldn’t be able to use it. I hadn’t noticed the ‘valid until’ date…….31.12.2012.





Maybe I need to widen the scope of my experiment.

If you are curious to see if the tenth drop of pitch is likely to happen any time soon then take a peek at the live webcam here.

If you would like to check out Daventry McDonalds for yourself you can find it here.


Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald


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