Bill Marvin
The Restaurant Doctor™

Marvin's Law of Creative Laziness says "never do any more work than you have to do to achieve the results you want." Toward this end and in the interests of your professional survival (and your own sanity), I urge you to look for failures in the system, not for failures in people when dealing with daily operating problems.

Here is an example of a common type of problem that will illustrate what I mean: Let's say that you have an operating standard that calls for dinner food orders to be up within fifteen minutes of the time they are placed. (NOTE: You would have determined this standard by observing when the majority of your guests start to become aware of the slow pace of service. In other words, by one means or another you have discovered that a ticket time of 15 minutes or less is what it takes in your operation for this particular meal period to meet your guests' needs and expectations.)

Let's also say you have a man named Harry working in the pantry and he is starting to notice that orders often take 20 minutes or more to get out of his station. Now he is aware of the fact that you want the food out in fifteen minutes and so he has two options - he can either keep quiet, hoping you won't notice or come to you and report the delays.

If you are the sort of person who sees failures as resulting from the performance of people, you are likely to blame Harry when you learn of the excessive processing times. If Harry suspects that you are apt to say something like "Thanks for telling me that, Harry. There obviously is a problem here and I think you are the problem. Since you seem unable to meet our standards, you are fired.," you can be sure that Harry will never open his mouth! Don't laugh, variations on this scene happen all the time.

If you choose to see operating problems as people failures, you virtually guarantee that no one on your staff will ever tell you about an operating problem! In this environment, not many folks will "rat" on their co-workers because they will figure that it is management's job to know what's going on and they do not want to be responsible for someone else losing their job. Certainly no one will report a problem that is a result of their own inability to perform if making that report is likely to be professional suicide!

The predictable results are that guest service suffers, operating problems are perpetuated, the "them and us" attitude is strengthened and your conscientious workers are more likely to become disenchanted. All of this will eventually show up as reduced sales volume, lower morale and increased turnover.

On the other hand, if you were to look at operational breakdowns as failures in the system, you would actually encourage people to bring you any "bad news." With this mindset you would greet Harry's report with enthusiasm and gratitude - enthusiasm because he was taking responsibility for the success of the operation and gratitude because he had provided an insight into where the operation might be failing to deliver the desired level of service to your guests. You might then sit down with Harry to explore where the system might be weak and see what suggestions he has on how to change the system to fix the problems.

There are a number of possible breakdowns in the system: Perhaps the menu is heavy on pantry items and the station is overloaded. Maybe there is an item so complicated to prepare that every time someone orders it, the entire production flow jams up. Perhaps necessary supplies are kept in an inconvenient place. Perhaps there is a needed piece of equipment that is missing or malfunctioning.

Perhaps orders are garbled when they come in from the dining room because the service staff doesn't understand how to use the new POS system. Every time an order is not clear, it might take a lot of additional discussion with the service staff to sort it out and get it right. Perhaps Harry can't read and has been trying to keep you from finding out.

If the problem lies with Harry's inability to perform, it is still a system failure. If Harry was not properly trained, if he doesn't understand what you want him to do or if he doesn't understand why it is important, you need to re-examine the effectiveness of your training and supervisory systems. If the standard itself is unreasonable given the labor you have scheduled, you may need to re-examine your staffing system or reconsider your means of setting standards.

If Harry is not physically or mentally capable of doing what the position demands or if Harry is otherwise the wrong person for that particular job, he may be more productive in another position. You need to look for where the job assignment system broke down in allowing him to be assigned to the pantry in the first place. If Harry is the wrong sort of person to be working in foodservice at all, a problem in your staff selection system allowed him to be hired. But the problem is always in the system, not in the people.

When you look for failures in the system and not for failures in people, it makes it safe for your existing staff to tell you where the snags are. First of all, they are the people most likely to know where things are not working properly and getting them involved means that the burden of keeping the train on the tracks does not fall entirely on the management. That in itself can be an overwhelming relief!

While it is easy (and tempting) to blame individuals for operational problems, it is never productive. The problem is not with your people. All they did was ask for a job - you are the one that gave it to them! This is not about pointing fingers or assigning blame but if you regard any lapses as your responsibility you can do something about them. If problems are always someone else's fault, you will only continue to be frustrated, spin your wheels and perpetuate the same old problems.

So how can you move your organization to a point where people feel free to open up? If you have been a control-oriented manager who has always assigned blame and tried to keep your staff firmly under your thumb, it is going to take some time to regain their trust and confidence. It will be difficult but it can be done. It helps to remember that for managers to do their jobs properly, they do not need to have all the right answers, they simply must be able to find the right answers.

Here are some management qualities that will help you establish this dialogue with your staff and start to change things for the better:

Listen to your staff, but not just to what they say. Listen with curiosity. Listen with humility. Listen for the feelings behind the words. Listen for insights. If you are willing to put your own judgements and opinions on hold and be "dumb as dirt," it will help you keep an open mind and help your staff feel better-heard. You might learn something as well!

Consider what they have to say because they are closer to most problems than you are and they have a different perspective on what is happening. Remember that their observations are just as valid for them as yours are for you. There is incredible wisdom and insight available in your staff if you are courageous enough to place more value on preserving your business than on preserving your ego.

Acknowledge their contributions because what gets rewarded is what gets done. I would encourage you to consider some sort of reward to acknowledge how much you value reports of failures in the system. In my experience, people are eager to become part of the solution when they get rewarded (with your gratitude if nothing else) for identifying areas that could be working better.

Act on what they tell you because nothing validates people's opinions more than taking action on their suggestions. This is not to suggest management by committee, but don't pass up a good idea just because you didn't think of it first. If people see that something actually happens when they share their ideas and observations, they gain hope, the "them and us" distinction starts to fade and most will take extra care to be sure they only suggest ideas they know will make things better.

By eagerly seeking out breakdowns in the system and welcoming information that points out where the company is falling short of its goals or failing to meet its standards, you become much more approachable. An open, appreciative, non-judgmental attitude will encourage everyone in the company to get involved. In addition to creating a smoother-running organization, you will also reduce your own workload, foster teamwork and improve job involvement. Your good people will be more inclined to stay and help fix things and less inclined to give up hope and leave out of frustration.

I always found that when I tapped the talent available in my staff, it was easier to spot the real causes underlying our problems. Better yet, it was easier to identify how we might need to change things to make the problem disappear! The first corollary to Marvin's Law of Creative Laziness is to "never waste time solving a problem you can eliminate!"

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

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