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On life and leadership: Kitchen Nightmares

Kitchen Nightmares

If you’ve ever watched the show Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, you’ll have seen Gordon Ramsay rock up to a struggling restaurant. Within a few minutes of interviewing the owner, his face has gone purple and his hair is standing on end as he realizes the challenge in front of him: how on earth to save this restaurant from itself (and its incompetent owner!)?

The kitchen staff are fighting, sometimes literally.

The service is atrocious: slow AND rude.

The food is inconsistent, or inedible.

The menu makes no sense (burgers and sushi, really?)

So, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

First things first, deal with the people: start with the leader, and then the senior team. Are they prepared to change and learn new ways, to work together?

Then, sort out the identity of the restaurant and its menu.

Sort out the systems in the kitchen and front-of-house.

Finally, create a marketing stunt to get people to try the restaurant.

So, here’s why I am writing about this: is your organization a restaurant in disguise?

Many of the organizations I work with have frightening numbers of internal and external stakeholders. These stakeholders are a bit like customers in your restaurant – there are lots of them, putting their orders all in at once. They want great service and good ‘food’, and they want it right now.

Your frontline team take these orders, and bring them back to your kitchen. Orders start stacking up, the systems aren’t smooth, and the menu is too complex with too many bespoke dishes being requested.

Some ‘customers’ get good food; some don’t.

Your team is so busy reacting to stakeholders day-to-day needs that there is no time to do great work, think long-term, develop new offerings.

So, what can we learn about keeping multiple stakeholders happy – and being able to think long term - by being more like a well-run restaurant?

Here are 5 ideas which would be interesting to engage with – and can form a great basis for a team planning session or offsite.

  1. First of all, get the front of house and back of house teams aligned. Start 2024 with a kick off meeting, canvas views about how you’re working, the quality of work, the efficiency of your systems.

  2. Then, cut down the number of dishes on your menu. Stop doing so much custom, bespoke work and get really good at a few favourite dishes. Only VIP customers get to order “off menu”.

  3. Put the systems and templates in place to deliver those dishes on time, with good quality, focusing especially on the handover points between team members.

  4. Have great service staff who can help your stakeholders get what they need, from YOUR menu.

  5. Decide on your identity – how do you want to be perceived by your stakeholders vs how are you perceived now? What do you want to be famous for? Do you have a signature dish like the Dragon’s Egg dessert at Sake in Manly.

I find metaphors like this can be highly effective at unlocking the collective intelligence of your team, and to make your work better. The restaurant metaphor is an example of the Related Worlds technique I learnt from What if. The principle is this: whatever your problem, someone else, in some other industry or part of the world has already solved it. So go and find those solutions and bring them back to your world. You’ll be surprised how often a good idea can translate from an unrelated market or industry into your own.


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