Today, on October 25th, 2007, I make a prediction. There will be a bestselling business management book written in the next two years with the kitchen or restaurant as its primary metaphor, and it will prominently feature Chef Gordon Ramsey. Not primarily because he is an amazing model of a philosopher-warrior-businessman-artist, but because the kitchen, not the battlefield, is the metaphor for business in the 21st century. I might even write the book myself. Here is my first stake in the ground. You’ve probably seen books like the The 10-day MBA and the The 12-Hour MBA Program. Here I channel Ramsey and offer you the 60-minute MBA.
Gordon Ramsey is the ace chef behind the fabulous show, Kitchen Nightmares, in which he essentially turns around failing restaurants within a week, with a stiff dose of foul-mouthed intervention, an injection of raw cash, and raw reality. In the brutal restaurant business, which draws the most starry-eyed entrepreneurs, of whom 9 out of 10 fail, business lessons are illustrated graphically within a microcosm where everything is literally visible. Things that are intangible in other domains are completely manifest. What makes the show beautiful is that it is palpably real reality television, about real people doing real things. It isn’t about tribes playing contrived games in a contrived social system with arbitrary incentives.
Sure — let’s be a little skeptical. They probably don’t air the episodes about unsuccessful stabs by Ramsey, but his successes teach you a whole lot. Here is a summary of the episodes I’ve watched so far (follow links for a precis of each):
- In Episode 1, Ramsey turns around Peter’s Restaurant in Long Island, a faltering Italian joint with a volatile dimwit son-of-the-founder as manager, by finally getting the dimwit clued-in about how to take responsibility for, and run the place.
- In Episode 2, Ramsey turns around Dillon’s, a schizophrenic joint in the heart of Manhattan that doesn’t know whether it is Indian or American, with the critical move being the firing (real, as far as I could tell, unlike the television firings by Trump) of the incompetent manager who rode the good faith of the timid owner.
- In Episode 3, Ramsey turns around The Mixing Bowl, an outfit with no clear failure mode, but an overall dysfunctional team with flaws all around, by just expanding their imaginations, and getting each of them to face reality and step up to accept their responsibility.
- In Episode 4, possibly the most dramatic of all, a tyrannical chef and an indifferent sous chef running a disgusting place called Seascape get the full-blown Ramsey treatment. The turnaround requires firing both, before renewal can begin.
To earn your 60-minute MBA, you have to read all four stories, with the critical eye of a Harvard Business Review reader. Now let’s extract some lessons, and translate them to a general business context. Each of these features occurred in all the stories, and I believe they are necessary, if not sufficient.
- Diagnosis: In each case, Ramsey looks at four features/symptoms to assess a place: quality of food, ambiance of dining area, team chemistry and kitchen cleanliness. In each case, ALL four were badly off. Translation: check product/service quality, customer experience, people problems, and level of organizational decay.
- Pre-Op: In each case, significant money was spent either cleaning up or repairing the infrastructure. From a thorough steam cleaning to get rid of mold, to wholesale replacements of all kitchen equipment, getting the outfit ready for success and a pleasure to work in was the key first step. In each case, just the preparation alone achieved a miraculous morale boost. Translation: don’t attempt surgery without preparation.
- The Cure: In each Ramsey followed a particular strategic sequence to turn things around:
- First, he refused to budge until absolute cleanliness and adequacy of equipment was achieved. Translation: create the most basic material and environmental conditions for successful day-to-day work.
- Second, he identified toxic (or merely miscast) problem individuals and drove all around consensus about what/who the problem was by shoving everybody’s faces in reality, rather than trying to win arguments about who was right or wrong. Memorably, in the Seascape episode, he forced the chef to recognize that the food he thought was great was actually crappy, by engineering an unambiguous taste test. The chef was so far in denial that he refused to taste Ramsey’s dish. Translation: get everybody to stare reality in the face.
- Third, he gave everybody a chance to redeem themselves, and find the right roles for themselves, but if they didn’t step up, he did not hesitate to force the hard decisions. In the Peter’s example, the volatile dimwit underwent a miraculous transformation and found a way to become part of the solution. In the Dillon’s and Seascape cases though, it was shape up or ship out, and people got fired. Translation: be absolutely fair in making people decisions, but make hard-nosed business decisions if necessary.
- Fourth, he drove change from the brand inward, rather than from strategy outward. In each case, a minor or major rebranding was necessary, with an absolute makeover of the offerings, restaurant interior, and in the case of Dillon’s, even a name change. Translation: re-imagine the new form of your organization from the customer’s point of view, and then make that happen.
- Fifth, he showed people how to do their jobs if they were otherwise the right people, but simply lacked the training. In one case, he brought in a consultant chef. In another case, he had his own maitre’d demonstrate how to run the dining area to the bumbling manager. Translation: there are always talented, well-intentioned people who just need a little coaching. Get them to be your solution.
- Sixth, he got the staff to experience success, and get high on it by creating a critical success experiment. In each case, the restaurant shut down and relaunched with some major hoopla. In each case, the staff struggled and in parts, crumbled, dealing with the onslaught of customers pouring in. In each case, this remark was made: “this staff doesn’t know what it is like to be busy.” In each case operational inefficiencies were immediately exposed and corrected in war mode. Translation: Get people to experience what success feels like, even if only for a day.
- Seventh, he left after making sure the right management team was in place and able to sustain the changed direction. In one case that meant the consultant chef becoming an ongoing consultant. In other cases, it meant hard conversations with the business owner about what they needed to do. Translation: without serious succession planning, everything else is just noise.
Now of course, not all of the lessons scale to, say, a large Fortune 500 company. You will not always have a supply of cash to completely rebuild your factories in the most modern way. But cleanliness, fresh paint and coffee are achievable by any organization. There were also other moves that were not as universal, but rather unique to each situation. In one hilarious instance, he got a wimpy manager to grow a backbone by sparring with him in the boxing ring (Ramsey apparently grew up in tough/poor conditions and started life as a soccer player before turning to cooking).
Why Restaurants Work as Models
We’ve seen centuries of management thinking driven, essentially, by military thinking and abstract microeconomics. The restaurant works as a great laboratory for a new approach to management for one key reason: it is not so small a domain that the dynamics of effective decision-making and work are invisible (example, writing a book — staring at a typing novelist teaches you very little about solving interpersonal conflicts, even if there are equivalents going on inside the novelist’s head). At the same time, the case studies are not embedded in domains far too vast to easily visualize, like say IBM.
But most importantly, unlike a battlefield, where nobody ever really wins, and a lot of people die, in a kitchen, if things are right, beautiful value that we can all appreciate, is created: delicious food. Business is fundamentally a creative, generative enterprise, even if its fundamental mechanism is the churn of creative destruction.
But beyond these “just the right size” and “generative” aspects, a restaurant also exhibits all the key phenomenology of any business, at the right scale and proportion, in very visible ways. All features of a good living textbook. There is a supply chain, a product/service mix, elements of vision, innovation, production, operations, sales, marketing — they’re all there. There are morale issues, talent issues, alignment issues — anything you care to name. Features of an enterprise that might be invisible in large organizations (like toxic people systems) are visible under the full glare of all-face-to-face conversations (no wars being fought invisibly over email — imagine a CEO yelling at a COO across a room containing all customers). Finally, the logic of dramatic moves, such as massive layoffs, key hirings and firings, rebrandings and repositioning, are all illustrated in beautifully visible ways.
I will be buying the boxed set of the DVDs when they come out.
If somebody wants to offer me the deal to write the Gordon Ramsey MBA book, I am up for it.