Chipotle Grill's Secret Ingredient: Obsession

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 8:39 AM EDT

"Stop it Mom, you're obsessed!" That's what my kids said to me all summer. Every time I opened the newspaper, I'd spot another shining example of willful blindness, the subject of my new book. So yes, I was obsessed.

But I think obsession's a virtue, not a vice. When I worked for the BBC, we were taught that if you could make any improvement to a show before it went out, you had to: You owed it to the public that paid for the program. And frankly, it was a joy to work for a company that understood perfectionism as a competitive advantage. The best technologists I've worked with are always obsessed â€"- late into the night â€"- over new software, computer languages and gadgets. I've sat at meetings at Eileen Fisher and marveled at just how long it's possible to obsess over a shade of green or the feel of a new fabric. All these organizations are obsessed, and they are successful because of it.

Ever since I interviewed Chipotle Grill CEO Steve Ells a few years ago for Reader's Digest, I've been obsessed by his business. Any chance I get, I try one of his restaurants. I want to test -- and taste -- how far his obsession runs. Two years ago, he was a man who worried about exactly how the oregano in the burrito was chopped. "They were washing it and not drying it â€"- so when they chopped it, it was clumpy," he told me. "This is wrong! We need it to be dry and fluffy when you chop it. So we put together a drying procedure." Could the customer tell the difference, I asked. "Probably not. But if you do a hundred things like this, they can tell the difference," he said. "In 10 years we will be selling better food because of hundreds of improvements like that."

At that time, the item on top of Ells's obsession list was his tortilla warmer. He'd tried every single warmer in the business; not one passed muster. So he enlisted engineers to build him one. They had made terrific headway, but after two years' work he still wasn't satisfied. So when I caught up with him again earlier this month, that was what I wanted to know: Where had his obsession taken him? Did he ever get the tortilla warmer of his dreams?

"Yes!" he laughed. "It's finally good enough! It took four years but we did it. Now it's perfect.The crews in the restaurants love them. You have no idea how dramatically better it is: it give us faster service; hotter, better-tasting tortillas that look better and last longer; and it uses less energy!"

As Ells described these incremental improvements, he did so with an energy and a passion that caught my attention. Here was a CEO and entrepreneur who didn't just have a good idea -- he was prepared to back it with years and years of obsessive attention to detail. While much of what the company did was novel, underpinning it all was a relentless desire to perfect process. Many entrepreneurs claim to dislike process, but the really successful ones know that it is process that flips the switch between daydream and reality.

With 88 percent growth in the first three quarters of 2010, Chipotle Grill has been a huge success, and weathered the recession well, for many reasons. But one of them is because, since he served his first burrito, Ells has never once stopped obsessing about what goes into his food, how it's made, how it's served and the experience his customers find in his restaurants. He obsesses in detail -- and for years -- about his food, his people and his leadership to a degree that most CEOs could find daunting.

Many entrepreneurs are obsessive â€"- and all the successful ones are.

So what are you obsessing about today?

Ells and I talked in such depth that Reader's Digest only used a small portion of our conversation. So, for those who share my love of long interviews, here is our full interview from 2008, as well as our catch-up conversation this month:
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on