Ah, nothing tastes quite like a piping hot, perfectly seasoned Mc Donald's french fry. But who knew such a greasy indulgence could lead to a business plan that would ultimately save a multifamily firm millions of dollars? That's exactly what happened when Ira Locks of Atlantic Housing Partners paid a visit to the Golden Arches.

Locks had read a book detailing McDonald's rise to fame, setting the standard of quality, service, and cleanliness for the fast food industry. He approached a store manager at his local restaurant, seeking ideas for running Atlantic Housing's construction division more efficiently. The manager pointed to the restaurant's prized possession: the french fry machine. Locks saw a series of instructional pictures on the machine, showing how to create the perfect batch of greasy—but not too greasy—fries. Then the light bulb lit up.

“We borrowed the [restaurant's] concept for the way we install our windows,” says Locks, the company's development manager. “We have 40 pictures of how we install our windows. Instead of relying on the typical architectural drawings, which the workforce has a hard time understanding, we went to a pictorial way of telling people how to install things.”

The plan helped Atlantic Housing's workers succeed. The Winter Park, Fla.-based developer has six communities within five miles of the Florida coast, and none of these buildings has had leaky windows despite being hit by multiple hurricanes.

This story just goes to show that you never know where you'll find your next inspiration. You could be at a diner, a boutique hotel, or even a car rental shop when you spot a savvy business strategy in play. In today's marketplace, it's simply not enough to keep your eye on your multifamily competitors, says Steve Hallsey, president and CEO of AMLI Management Co., a subsidiary of Chicago-based AMLI Residential. And if you do, you and your company will miss out. “I think we've gotten very stagnated,” Hallsey says. “We just kept looking at each other, trying to see what Post or Archstone would do, and we never went outside. Then, finally, we all decided there are some great ideas going on out there.”

Of course, extracting new ideas from another industry takes a good bit of creativity and ingenuity. But the extra effort can certainly pay off, says Jim Gilmore, co-founder of Strategic Horizons, a thinking studio dedicated to helping companies conceive and design new ways of adding value to their economic offerings and co-author of The Experience Economy. “If you look at related stimuli, you are likely to get some new perspectives and new ideas, but they are not likely to be truly new,” Gilmore says. “If you go to unrelated stimuli, it's less likely you are going to find some new insight—but if you do, it's more likely to be truly new.”

And multifamily firms are discovering just that. Some of the industry's newest approaches are borrowed ideas, like revenue management systems adopted from airlines and hotels and the switch to commission-based leasing, which is popular in many sales industries. So if you haven't done so yet, it's time to take the plunge and explore the ideas and innovations happening beyond the walls of your properties. Here are a handful of lessons you can learn from five outside industries, be it your local fast food chain or your favorite TV show.

FAST FOOD Customers like consistency and quality.

As Locks discovered, one should never underestimate the power of fast food. Fast food often gets a bad rap (and perhaps deservedly so) for its unhealthy offerings, but the multibillion-dollar industry is obviously doing something right. People love chains such as McDonald's and Wendy's because they can always count on great-tasting burgers and fries. “The multifamily industry needs to get the same quality control and consistency of product,” Locks says.

His company's step-by-step pictorials for window installation (modeled after McDonald's french fry machine instructions) are helping to do just that, and all workers, including those who don't speak English, can easily follow the directions. Due to the success of the revamped window installation process, Atlantic Housing Partners now offers similar instruction sheets for other key building components.