The restaurant chain looks to its training department to lower turnover, maintain brand consistency, and preserve the firm's Southern culture—all at no cost to the organization.

It's known as "feeding the chicken." Whenever employees at Zaxby's restaurants complete a required learning course, the achievement is acknowledged on each individual's customized learning plan. Zaxby's learning logo, a chicken wearing a mortarboard, turns increasingly golden as learning goals are met and solid gold when the entire job is done.

The distinctive progress bar is an undisputed home run for the fast-growing restaurant chain known for its savory fried chicken and other dishes presented with a Southern flair. More importantly, the modest gamification element represents a major advance of Zaxby's licensee management training strategy that links learning accomplishments with important business goals. They include standards for performance, turnover, brand consistency, and adherence to the firm's Southern culture.

The Georgia-based chain operates more than 590 franchise restaurants in 13 states. The 23-year-old enterprise considers its employees to be its most important asset, and the development of talent a core value that ranks only behind the guest experience. That makes training a priority investment.

Formal licensee management training traditionally has been held at each franchisee's expense at corporate office classrooms supplemented by in-restaurant instruction at one of the firm's certified training restaurants. The curriculum required to achieve management certification kept trainees away from their home restaurants for six weeks and cost licensees an average of $6,000 per student.

But management trainees sometimes failed their certification tests, quit their jobs during training, or were deemed unsuitable for the position, any of which required a restart of the process. As a result, the company continued to wage an uphill battle against two related business challenges—turnover in the licensee workforce and consistency within the brand. Meanwhile, licensees began to increase their requests for greater control over personnel training.

An internal compliance report revealed that only 25 percent of the company's restaurants were being led by a team of certified managers, mostly because of a turnover rate that exceeded 100 percent. While on par with industry averages, the figure was unacceptable to Zaxby's CEO.

"As a franchisor, consistency is extremely important—every restaurant needs to be the same," says Richard Fletcher, vice president of talent management. "So we asked, 'How can we balance the need for consistent training with a demand by licensees for independence and control over learning?'"

In 2012, Zaxby's unveiled the answer: The Licensee Managed Training Program, an initiative that put licensees in charge of delivering training content developed by Zaxby's learning team. The optional program is a three-sided strategy that begins with an online learning management system. The LMS allows learners to customize their learning plans within a modular structure and track their progress.

The program delivers company-produced content customized to specific roles such as front of house, back of house, manager, and owner. Licensees are free to alter the delivery of content to suit their own needs—a move that gives them much-desired control while meeting the training department's need for consistency.

Lastly, licensees get to see first-hand how a commitment to continuous learning results in enhanced productivity. "It's the ultimate win-win," says Fletcher.

The training regimen not only tracks course completion and performance via test scores, but it also features hands-on demonstrative tests that measure ability. They are conducted at designated certified testing restaurants.

Yet another key element of the strategy is a newly created position called organization training manager. Every restaurant that opts for the licensee-managed program must have this full-time individual on staff.

These managers facilitate the training partnership while supporting the licensees' organizational goals. Following an intense three-day, face-to-face training initiation at corporate headquarters, they employ the company's certified training program as on-the-job training for their own colleagues.

An annual licensee profitability summit solicits ideas about improving the learning experience, and an annual learning operations review with the executive team helps drive and support the enterprise learning strategy.

Maintaining Zaxby's distinctive Southern culture is another training department activity. "What's played well for us as a small company is the close-knit group of licensees who buy into our mission and values. But the bigger we grow, the more diluted that message gets and the less control we have," says Fletcher.

So a new priority is to raise awareness of Zaxby's values and mission. Called the culture and guest experience manager, this individual develops, implements, and monitors programs to measure and evaluate the restaurant front-of-house guest experience.

The results have been noteworthy from every measure. They include a critical reduction in time required to fulfill food orders, and sales and revenue increases at restaurants that improved their progress in training and certifying managers. In addition, the organization saved $3.6 million during 2012 by eliminating travel costs that would have been incurred by 500 managers who trained in-house.

Meanwhile, Zaxby's Learning Center has recovered 100 percent of the costs to implement its new learning program. "In short, this effort costs us nothing," says Fletcher.