Castle makes its mark

The 13,000 people working at White Castle know how to make and sell millions of some of the country's most popular hamburgers each year.

Less inspiring is the fact that those same employees generate tons of paperwork just complying with the company's human resources systems. For instance, a White Castle team member can have as many as 15 forms to fill out on his or her first day at work.

Not surprisingly, the company that started in Wichita, Kansas selling 5c hamburgers in 1921 wanted to move its "forms and bags" operations into the 21st century. Executives knew there had to be a better way than regional managers driving between outlets and then on to the local headquarters loaded with forms.

The company quickly realized that electronic forms could be the answer, but the problems were security and validation of electronic signatures. "We looked at a lot of different technologies and ended up with fingerprint verification as being the best one," says Don Long, senior director of information services and information technology for White Castle.

The company chose DigitalPersona solutions and, after a trial in the St Louis area, picked Trans Biometric Technologies, a DigitalPersona reseller, to install the fingerprint authentication technology at all White Castle's 400-odd stores, as well as at its regional offices and food manufacturing facilities.

The company's benefits staff were very impressed and, late last year, pushed for a four-week open enrollment period.

IT acquiesced and quickly rolled out the biometrics technology company-wide, asking the employees to register images of their two thumbs for verification purposes. Implementation was problem-free. DigitalPersona's fingerprint device basically plugs into a PC's USB port and there is a small installation process.

"After it was explained that we were not really not taking a fingerprint but an image that boiled down to a string of numbers, there was very little opposition. We had up to 95 percent of the people register electronically."

Then came the open enrollment process, a project that Long doubts would even have been tried if the firm had stayed with its traditional paper forms. "Our health enrollment form was the second-worst form with regards to mistakes and problems," admits Long.

"Then try and imagine 6,000 open enrollments on paper coming in for four weeks, all of which need to be filed and categorized, counted and edited."

IT was also able to make the electronic form more user-friendly than its paper predecessor. It was constructed in such a way that a person couldn't finish enrollment without correctly completing the form. The PC kiosk was even linked to a scanner which prompted employees to scan documents, such as birth certificates, needed to verify various answers.

The mean time for filling in the forms came down to around two and a half minutes, which also pleased the line managers at the Castles, who didn't lose their employees' burger-making and serving skills for too long.

"Employees now have a secure and convenient way to enroll for their healthcare benefits," says Long. "We have been able to cut out weeks of manual processing by eliminating the paperwork and streamlining the enrollment process, which translates to a direct reduction in our payroll costs."

The company has ambitious plans to keep trimming down its paper mountain.

"There is a flurry of forms when you have a new hire. It can be as many as 15. If we can do that electronically, we are going to save a lot of paper," says Long.

One goal from the beginning was to enable district managers, those paper carriers and checkers who started our story, to be able to manage ten percent more White Castle stores.

Achieving that goal will save the family-owned company roughly $1 million a year. "I don't think ten percent is a very high goal," says a confident Long, "and I think we will surpass it."

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