Kitchen Insights for Business Teams

A while ago we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, but this time we sat at their kitchen-bar. Their kitchen is open for the patrons to see, and if you want an up close view of it you can sit at a bar that is adjacent to the line cooks. As someone who loves good food, and loves to cook good food, this was a real treat! We arrived early, so we got to see the kitchen go from relaxed to frenetic. I didn’t expect to gain some consulting insights from the evening, but I did.

I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, of even a restaurant but what I saw in that kitchen was such a great example of teamwork, talent and service. It got me to thinking about how we expect good food, on time, consistently and doing that requires a good operating system with talented people. If the system breaks down, food goes out late, cold, or poorly prepared. If the kitchen staff are not qualified and experienced in their work it also shows in the food quality, timeliness and so on. And then I thought – we rarely put as much thought and effort into the operating processes and talent of our IT project teams or shared services organizations as good restaurants put into their kitchens.

Each cook in the kitchen had a fairly specialized job, or at least a narrow focus. One cooked meats on a flat top grill. Another assembled hot appetizers and did some other sauté work. Others made pasta, or salads. Up the hierarchy were more experienced cooks who double-checked the food for taste and added some finishing touches. Further up were those who called out the orders and assembled food for the table. And then the head chef overseeing it all; I could see everyone knew their role and they were trained, experienced and qualified for it. As the pace picked up and the line cooks in front of us became a bottleneck, one of the more experienced cooks just took a place on that line and pitched in. I recognized him – he was a regular line cook six months ago when we were there for dinner. There’s a promotion path in the kitchen. They handled one-offs too - a scallop appetizer without the scallop, a well-done filet mignon (a true crime) – without dropping a beat.

Our IT project teams and shared services organizations can benefit from this kitchen operating model in a number of ways. First, ingrain a rigorous process for getting the work done that allows for flexibility. Where do the work orders come from, and can you trace them and know where they are at all times? Can you allow for one-offs when needed? Can you move resources around quickly and smoothly to handle the peak workload and remove bottlenecks?

The second benefit is to make sure you have the right talent in the proper places. Have people been trained? Really? If customer service is important in your HR Shared Services group, have you provided any customer service training? Knowing HR practices and policies doesn’t mean you are naturally good at customer service. Do you have under-qualified people in certain positions? Are they trainable or do you need to find a more appropriate position for them? And what is the promotion path in your organization – is there one? Are you attracting, and paying, for the talent you need to get the work done?

The third benefit is what I think is best termed as tenacity. Do people have determination to do good work, to get it done on time? When things get busy – as they often do – are they digging into the work and powering through it or are the sloughing it off? Are they willing to ask for help, to receive help, to give help when they or the organization needs it? How engaged are people with the mission or goals of the group?

In my 20+ years of experience working with companies I’d say it’s pretty rare to see these qualities in project teams or shared services organizations - rigorous process, talented staff, and tenacity. And you might say, well Steve we aren’t trying to have a world-class team doing the work. Good enough is good enough. That’s fair, but then be honest about it and avoid over-the-top quality and teamwork slogans. People see right through those, and they can actually be demotivating when seen as insincere.

But I would, of course, advise you to rethink the good-enough goal. Providing great administrative services (IT, HR, Payroll, etc) helps a company focus on its mission. Look at it another way: every minute someone is dealing with an administrative issue is a minute taken away from the company’s mission. And if people are actively working to avoid dealing with your group (more common that we would like to admit), it’s even worse for the company.

Implementing a rigorous process, having people with the appropriate talent in the right positions, and having a tenacious group of people isn’t so complicated to do. But it doesn't happen on its own either. What are you doing to provide great service?

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