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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Universe at the End of the Restaurant

When we eat in restaurants, there is often a clear difference between the quality of the food and the quality of the service. The quality of the food may be dependent on the processes in the kitchen, as well as the quality and freshness of the raw materials, but our enjoyment of good food can be spoiled by poor service, which usually means a poorly designed process.

I found an Australian report about innovation in the restaurant industry (Submission to the Cutler Review by Restaurant & Catering Australia, pdf, April 2008), from which I picked out the following points.

  • The majority of the innovation is product innovation and therefore does not lead to significant productivity improvements.
  • The genesis of a new process should still be seen by a business as a competitive advantage. The development of these processes, however, requires a critical mass of thought that is often not evident in a small business.
  • The critical mass of funds required to change a process often means that innovation only occurs in small businesses when they change hands.

Obviously one form of innovation is to change the menu or introduce new items - in other words product innovation. For example, Nigel Green describes how his local pub was Thinking Adaptive and Adoptive over Fish & Chips - applying Cynefin to make sense of weak signals from regular customers.

A poorly designed process doesn't only reduce customer satisfaction. If it increases the length of time customers wait at tables for service, then it reduces the number of customers that can be accommodated in a session. Process innovation may therefore have a bigger impact on the business viability of a restaurant than product innovation.

Furthermore, the kind of bloggers I read generally have more to say about process management than cooking. So I have got a few contrasting examples here.

In my earlier post Agility and Variation, I described the frustration of David J Anderson's Sushi Lunch. Anderson was taken to a restaurant in Japan where the food was excellent but the process was broken. Anderson being a follower of Goldratt's Theory of Constraints, he diagnosed the problem in terms of a poor division of responsibility, although I took the opportunity to point out that the case also provided a counter-example to his usual line on eliminating variation.

Now for two more successful process examples. David Wertheimer describes Process innovation at Moe's (a Mexican restaurant) while in Process Improvement and the Chaat Cafe, Chris Bird talks about the stages of innovation in his favourite Indian restaurant, and throws in a brief mention of VPEC-T.

For those who like abstraction, all these restaurants have the same basic requirements. But what is interesting about these cases is that they are all different - a wide variety of problems and issues. I am also struck by the variety of problem-solving and other methods that are suggested - Cynefin, Theory of Constraints, VPEC-T.


  1. Some of this, I suspect, boils down to motivation rather than process. Some restaurant staff are in it because they want the business to succeed. Others are in it because they have a genuine passion for customer service. Others are in it because it's a convenient money earner... or the only available option. Those last two on their own are not necessarily conducive to good service.

  2. I agree that motivation is relevant. However, I don't see motivation as completely separate from the process. Nothing demotivates staff faster than a badly designed process.

    Theory X says that people are inherently unmotivated and need coercion to work properly. So command and control must be considered as part of the management process.

    Theory Y says that people generally want to do a reasonably good job. So the restaurant process must be designed to enable this.

    So whether you regard motivation as an independent variable (Theory X) or as a dependent variable (Theory Y) you still need to have a process to manage it.