Bill Marvin
The Restaurant Doctor

Solving operating problems in the wide world of foodservice can be like trying to nail jell-o to the wall! Operational problems exist in a fluid environment that has an endless array of variables and the answers are never very clear.

Trying to keep current on this minutiae is exhausting. In my experience, most operators (and consultants, too, for that matter) put in long hours and apply themselves with all good intention but are seldom as effective over the long term as they would like to be. Even when everything is done "right" and there is some immediate improvement, rarely do they create a solution that will stay in place without continual attention.

There is a quote I like that is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill:

"We conferred endlessly and futilely and arrived at the place from whence we began. Then we did what we knew we had to do in the first place, and we failed as we knew we would."

Whether the quote is accurate or not, the thought behind it deserves consideration. Are we spending our time becoming incredibly adept at irrelevant procedures? Are we getting better and better at doing things that don't work?

As an operator, I always believed there had to be a better way to deal with operational issues than the way I had been taught. In searching for a different approach, it became apparent that no matter what the specific symptoms, the common denominator of all foodservice problems was people. People caused all the problems and people ultimately had to be part of any lasting solution. Every operating problem is really a "people problem" in disguise.

If you accept this premise, you can start to see that the reason we have such fleeting success with operating problems is that we often place emphasis in the wrong places. Tradition says that we attack issues with professional expertise and techniques. This deals with the symptoms well enough but does nothing to address the human factors that create the problems in the first place. Once you comprehend this idea, you will start to see that behavior is only a symptom of the real problem. In fact, the proper starting point for most operational issues is the work climate.

Climate is another word for the working environment in an organization. Climate has a strong influence on a person's state of mind and their feeling of personal well-being. A person's state of mind, in turn, influences their thinking and it is thinking that determines how a person is likely to behave. This concept is so simple and yet it seems revolutionary when compared to the way we always thought things worked. Let me describe a case that will illustrate the power of this understanding:

In the mid-1980s, I was hired by the United States Olympic Committee to take over the foodservice at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs. The OTC was an on-going operation whose dining program was in need of major surgery. In fact, the foodservice had consistently been the leading source of complaints from the athletes about their training experience.

To underscore how bad things were, the day I arrived to take over the dining operations we had two knife fights in the kitchen! Two of my kitchen workers had attempted to resolve an argument by waving french knives at each other with some degree of seriousness. No damage was done, but the event had everyone nervous for a few minutes.

Now I had received some excellent training in my professional career but nowhere was there any instruction in how to deal with knife fights! In my old "management expertise" mode, my response to the knife fights would likely have been to first fire - or at least suspend or put on probation - the people involved. After all, it is important to deliver a clear message that this is unacceptable behavior, right?

After that, if I didn't already have one, I would have written a clear policy about knife fights. The policy would have clearly stated that engaging in such dangerous behavior was unacceptable conduct and could be considered grounds for immediate dismissal. Just to be sure the point wasn't lost, it might even have been one of those policies that all staff members would be required to sign when they join the company.

Finally, I would have held a special staff meeting to explain the policy. I would have been sure my staff understood how behavior of this sort worked against everything we were trying to accomplish in the operation. I would have talked about the importance of teamwork and cooperation, probably with some analogies from the Olympic games. I would have shared my vision for the operation and tried to get my crew excited about what we could do together. It would have been an inspirational session designed to help my staff see that we were all in this together and we had to work together to succeed in providing memorable service to the athletes.

In seminars all over North America, I have shared this story with many operators. The overwhelming majority tell me they would have followed about the same path. Interestingly, when asked if they thought these steps would effectively eliminate the problem of future knife fights, all reluctantly acknowledged that they didn't really expect much would change.

When the knife fights came up, however, I had a different understanding about what was leading to the behavior. I had started to recognize that behavior was just a symptom of a person's level of thinking. Instead of seeing the knife fights as a statement about the people involved, I saw the incident merely as an indication of a low level of personal security. The workers involved in the incident were just in a state of mind where swinging knives at each other seemed like an appropriate way to settle a dispute. I further realized that the only way the behavior would change would be to change the thinking that created it.

In this case, I talked with the combatants and probably suggested that carving up their co-workers was inappropriate and dangerous, but I never addressed their behavior directly. Instead, my conversation probably went something like this:

"Given what happened, it is obvious to me that something has you really frustrated. What's wrong with this chicken outfit? What's making your job tough and what do you think we can do about it?"

My goal was to get an insight into what was weighing heavily on the minds of my new workers because whatever it was, it was making their lives difficult, affecting their thinking and leading to their unproductive behavior. Accomplishing this goal required that I listen without judgement because that is a major aid in helping move people to a healthier state of mind. All it would take for them to change their behavior was that they increase their level of personal security and well-being to a point where they would not even think seriously of making a personal attack on someone.

As we uncovered irritants (without going into all the details, suffice it to say there were a lot of them!), we fixed them. Once the pressure came off, the climate immediately started to improve. The next day it was not just that the knife fights stopped, but that the idea wouldn't even enter anyone's mind! In fact, we never had another similar incident.

There were several other interesting - some would say "impossible" - benefits of this approach: Within about two months, OTC foodservice had become the number one source of compliments from the athletes and coaches - all the more remarkable when you consider that this happened with essentially the same workers who had generated all the previous complaints. Over the next six months, dining room patronage (the number of meals eaten per athlete day) nearly doubled while the cost per meal dropped over 20 percent. Staff turnover went from 300% to 25% without a change in wage rates. I resigned almost five years later because I had accomplished everything I had hoped to achieve at the OTC. There was nothing left for me to do because my staff was really running things. Most gratifying, the people involved in the knife fights were still on staff and were among our most productive workers!

I could give you examples of turnarounds equally as dramatic for clients in all types of foodservice operations but the underlying premise is identical. These impressive results suggest that a lasting solution to most operating issues involves a change in behavior and that the simplest way to change behavior is to improve the work environment. When the work environment changes, most problems will resolve themselves without further attention.

I advise people never to waste time solving a problem they can eliminate! In my experience, easily 80% of typical hospitality operating problems, including turnover, low productivity and indifferent service, are simply predictable symptoms of the style with which most companies are managed, however innocently.

Effectiveness in this mode requires being more of a teacher and less of a technician. Still, understanding the power of climate opens the door for lasting results with less effort than you ever believed possible - and without wrestling with a host of petty details.

for more information contact:
Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™
(585) 606-0000

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