The Restless Innovation Challenge
This past summer, Taco Bell hosted its first-ever Restless Innovation Challenge. 20 volunteers from the Taco Bell Corp. Technology Department volunteered to ideate solutions with the goal of improving restaurant support, a page out of the Internal Incubator book! Except this time, they had a single piece of criteria: Use Generative AI.
So, how did this challenge come to be? It all started when Vice President of Technology, Paul Tung and Chief Technology Officer, Steve Plank decided to push the Technology Department to play with the idea of GenAI to help restaurants in their daily functions.
Steve said, “Our question was: How do we promote innovation and creativity using technology to benefit restaurants, specifically generative AI? How can we push the boundaries in this space and bring about significant changes in the organization’s technology to transform how we do things?”
Not only were the criteria simplified, but there was also no real structure or limits to this challenge, which made it even more exciting.
“This challenge was open to anyone who wanted to be a part of it using their own time and the sky was literally the limit. Participants would be able to ask for any resources and connect with anyone to get this done,” said Jade Borden, Business Analyst, RIS.
Soon enough, this challenge had 20 interested people from all levels and teams across the department. The group organically divided themselves into 3 pods: PIE AI, Tuesd.AI and T3. Once the teams got settled into their pods, the real innovation began.
PIE AI’s project was born from a source of genuine restless creativity by each member of the team: Tristan Lacey, David Hoang, Bryant Nguyen, Amin Soltani, Kent Jitpatima, and David Kwon. When they first sat down to ideate, the team found it difficult to navigate the open-ended project.
“Beginning a project without set guidelines initially gave us an empty ‘potential-filled’ workspace as it was hard to visualize the final goal. However, it encouraged a collaborative environment where every team member was driven to dive into areas reflective of their genuine passions and interests,” said David Kwon, member, PIE AI.
From the start, PIE AI took a proactive stance in solving their challenge of a pain point service desk issue regarding the management of incoming calls during high volume periods.
David said, “We met often to review our current solution, exchange creative ideas, provide feedback and quickly integrate these ideas into our working solution. This approach allowed us to transform an idea into a working application over the course of 5 weeks.”
In no time, the pod was well on its way to developing a solid plan to solve everyday problems using the benefit of technology.
While PIE AI was baking up a service desk solution, the TUESD.AI pod of members (Akhil Durga Prasad, Bala Venkata, Bobby Griffin, Jason Agar-Hutton, Mainak Das, Moses Madrigal, Tarun Rajasekar) were fearlessly diving in headfirst to resolve operational management issues within restaurants.
Robert Griffin, TUESD.AI pod member said, “Tuesd.AI is a representation of Taco Bell’s recent liberation of Taco Tuesday. To celebrate, we decided to unleash the full potential of AI and apply it to the technology that restaurants use daily.”
As TUESD.AI was on a mission to find the best possible solution they could envision for the issue, they encountered their own set of challenges.
“One of the main obstacles we encountered was conducting research for different solutions. Some of these new technologies we were researching did not have a great deal of documentation or previous case studies for reference, so this made it difficult to piece together our solution,” said Robert.
Although the team was met with a few research gaps, it helped them build professional capability.
Project Manager, Jason Agar-Hutton said, “These hurdles made us stronger as a team, helping us build resilience and learn to adapt in constantly changing circumstances. Undoubtedly, it opened our minds to numerous discoveries and infinite possibilities.”
As TUESD.AI was creating their results-driven plan, T3 (Jon Lee, Bala Venkata, Nisha Kumari, Alexander Masluk, Michael Healy, Ivan Padilla) was coming up with ideas on how AI could help Taco Bell better serve its customers and team members.
“When we first sat down to ideate, our group considered multiple workflows to bring our project to life, always keeping the needs of restaurant care users in mind. Ultimately, we eliminated impractical long-term solutions and settled on our current tech stack after weighing their pros and cons. This was our fearless approach to design,” said pod member Ivan Padilla.
Of course, these innovations would not have been possible without a certain synergy within the groups. Teamwork as the highlight of this challenge was the consensus for everyone.
Ivan said, “My favorite aspect of working on this challenge was certainly teamwork. Witnessing the enthusiasm and commitment of all team members was truly inspiring. The combination of incredible people and cutting-edge technology made this a rewarding endeavor.”
After a summer full of hard work and determination, the pods finally presented their ideas to the Technology Leadership Team in November.
Steve opened the presentation with the following:
“I admit, I was incredibly nervous because I had no idea what was going to happen. You all showed up incredibly well and we really got something transformational. Collaboration with autonomy is incredibly powerful and produces amazing things.”
T3, TUESD.AI and PIE AI presented their research, projects and plans one after the other. Each presentation ended with a Q&A from Technology Leadership including Vadim Parizher, Rishi Gupta and Daneil Fragoso amongst many others. The presentations left the leadership team impressed, and the pod members fulfilled.
“I’m excited as this is something we are going to do again in some shape or form. This challenge was an eye opener for the entire Technology Leadership Team,” said Steve.
Overall, the Restless Innovation Challenge was no short of a learning experience. From building new skills to working with cross functional partners, members were able to advance their personal and professional growth on top of leaning into AI in new ways outside their daily routines.
As CEO, Mark King once said, “Good ideas come from anywhere...,” and projects that spark creativity such as the Restless Innovation Challenge are no stranger to Taco Bell. Looking to the future of Technology and tacos, Taco Bell hopes to continue driving this momentum of innovation in the coming years.
Robert from the TUESD.AI project says, “Taco Bell is paving the way for the future of technology in huge ways. With projects like this, employees can be empowered to drive real change at Taco Bell. Someday soon the question will not be, ‘What is Taco Bell doing to be like other companies?’ but the question will become, ‘What are other companies doing to be like Taco Bell?’”