What Would Gordon Ramsay Do? Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Difficult Coaching Assignments
By Jan Beaver, CSM, CSPO, CSP
A quick Internet search turns up a large number of blog posts comparing and contrasting the approach of Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant management philosophy to Agile software development practices. There are certainly some parallels, although the comparisons break down when one considers Ramsay’s command-and-control philosophy in his own restaurants.
A better analogy is to compare his approach in the restaurants of struggling restaurateurs to coaching Scrum teams and the organizations in which they live.
In case you are not familiar with Gordon Ramsay, he is a highly successful chef, restaurateur, and television personality. Of his three television programs, the one I will focus on here is “Kitchen Nightmares,” a situational reality show in which Ramsay spends a week at a struggling restaurant in an attempt to transform it into an efficient, effective, and profitable enterprise. Aside from the part about spending just a week on-site, this is an adequate description of the daily life of an Agile coach.
As with most successful business people, Ramsay has a formulaic approach, but one in which the areas of nuance are nearly endless and therefore lends itself to just about any situation. His formula echoes many of the principles we Agilists hold dear: do the simplest thing that will satisfy your customer; never, ever compromise quality; work as a team; deliver in small increments, frequently; and finally, give people the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.
The typical setup for an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” goes like this: Gordon arrives at the struggling restaurant around lunchtime, meets the owner or owners, orders some food and delivers his critique to the kitchen staff, observes an evening service in both the kitchen and the dining room, and finally interviews the staff and owners to find out just how close to emotional and financial collapse they really are.
After Gordon has all of the information he needs, he makes a series of recommendations, generally focused on simplifying the menu, reducing prices, changing staff relationships or, surprisingly rarely, changing the staff, updating the décor, and most disturbingly, cleaning the kitchen. While he rarely gets too much pushback on the cleaning angle, most of the staff, from the chefs to the wait staff to the owners, simply balks at changing any of the other items on his list. How much does this sound like certain coaching engagements? They know that they are failing; yet the chefs and owners refuse point-blank to embrace changes that have an excellent track record in delivering success.
At this point, Chef Ramsay uses his powers of persuasion to convince or cajole the owners or chefs or both into adopting his proposed changes. Ramsay is famously profane, which makes for entertaining television, but upon closer examination, his approach is far more subtle than simply dropping a flurry of F-bombs every ten seconds (which he does). First, if he encounters arrogance, he does everything he can to confront and overcome it. This is where the great entertainment lies. As Agile coaches, we confront arrogance regularly. Unfortunately, we cannot look to Chef Ramsay for our techniques. Maintaining the highest levels of professionalism is not optional. That being said, however, we can follow his example by working assiduously to overcome arrogance that blocks necessary change.
Another subtlety in Chef Ramsay’s approach is that he frequently encounters chefs or owners who have simply lost confidence or are so close to the precipice of financial disaster that, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, they find it impossible even to think of changing anything. With these people he takes a much kinder and gentler tack. In the case of one struggling chef/owner who was about to lose both his prized Michelin rosette and his business, Ramsay offered encouragement, emotional support, and practical guidance based on his long experience as a chef. He uses the same approach with owners for whom it had all somehow gone terribly wrong. Nary an F-bomb drops during these encounters.
So how can we apply Chef Ramsay’s approach to coaching Scrum teams? Easy – follow his program.
First, Clean Up the Kitchen
It is truly shocking how filthy some restaurant kitchens are. A dirty kitchen simply cannot produce quality food. Scrum teams suffer from a similar malady. If the team’s work area is poorly organized or if the team is not at least mostly co-located or lacks high-bandwidth communication, it is very unlikely that they will be able to deliver a quality product. If the team lacks adequate hardware, monitors, has no team room, tries to function without collaborative tooling including information radiators, does not have automated build, test, and continuous integration infrastructure, or does not follow sound engineering practices, it is almost impossible for them to meet customer expectations. So, clean up the kitchen! As a coach, help the team work with facilities and management to get the necessary physical infrastructure in place. Be creative, particularly when budgets are tight. Many of the infrastructural impediments teams face can be overcome without breaking the bank.
Build the Team
Most restaurants that call for Chef Ramsay’s intervention suffer from severe team dysfunctions. Often there are conflicts between members of the kitchen staff, between members of the front-of-house staff, and also between the two groups. The intra-team dysfunctions make it impossible for the kitchen or front-of-house to get organized so that they can deliver quality products to the restaurant’s customers in a timely fashion. The inter-team dysfunction prevents the restaurant from operating as a cohesive organization. Ramsay’s approach is typically to attack the dysfunctions of each team first, so that both the kitchen and front-of-house work cooperatively internally, then he tackles the points of friction between the two teams.
Ramsay always assumes that the people currently working in the kitchen or front-of-house will continue to do so, but as two unified teams working in parallel to delight the restaurant’s customers. He occasionally uses external team-building exercises, but most often works with the two teams in-house to build their sense of team, mutual trust, and inter-team cooperation.
Within each team, Ramsay works to break down arrogant behavior and build individual and team confidence. While restaurant teams are less self organizing than Scrum teams, the idea is much the same, with each team member contributing whenever and wherever possible to complete and deliver each order quickly and with the highest possible quality.
Most episodes end with the staff intact on both teams after Chef Ramsay has done his work. Sometimes, however, the restaurant owner ends up sending one or more individuals packing, either on Ramsay’s recommendation or as a result of team decisions. As with Scrum teams, an individual or two who are unwilling to work in a team environment will derail the entire effort. Ramsay only has a week to rescue a failing business, so he has no time to fool around with people who are disruptive, unmotivated, or otherwise unwilling to invest themselves in the project.
The payoff, for those team members who choose to remain, is a healthy and vibrant work environment in which everyone’s contribution is vital and appreciated.
Work With Your Customers to Determine What They Want – Do the Simplest Thing That Will Work
Once the kitchen is clean and the teams are formed and beginning to understand what it means to work collaboratively, Ramsay turns his attention to the product – the menu. Most restaurant owners think they know instinctively what their customers want and express bewilderment or disbelief at the cold, hard fact that no one is buying what they’re selling. Despite his record of success, Chef Ramsay never assumes that he knows anything about the local market and, like any good Product Owner, hits the pavement to find out what potential customers want and what they’re willing to pay for it, as well as to scope out the competition. The inevitable result of his research is that market doesn’t want the elaborate, stuffy, complex – or just plain awful – and expensive fare the restaurateur has been offering, preferring instead simple, local, fresh foods, simply prepared, served in a timely manner, and at a fair price. A simple menu offering five starters, five main courses, and five deserts seems to be the sweet spot. Maximizing the amount of work not done is clearly a virtue beyond the software industry.
Deliver Early and Often to Delight Your Customers
Now that there is a quality product on offer to the market, delivery becomes the key. The food can be exactly what the market wants, but if it is delivered late and cold the outcome is certain – the business will fail. This is the point at which Chef Ramsay tunes the performance of the teams by helping with everything from kitchen workspace location and layout to front-of-house décor and design. The physical environments in which both teams operate must be tuned to ensure that there are no major impediments to product creation and delivery.
Ramsay frequently coaches the teams to communicate continuously, both internally and with the other team. He always seems amazed at how team members think they can get anything done without continuous communication and collaboration.
Never, Ever Compromise on Quality
One of the usual suspects whenever Chef Ramsay visits a troubled restaurant is the quality of the food. Most failing restaurants have severe quality issues, which of course drive customers away. Poor quality is almost always the result of several factors in combination: a dirty kitchen, poorly equipped or badly organized work areas, antagonistic intra- and inter-team relationships, lack of motivation or commitment, an excessively complex menu, use of inferior quality ingredients (although even top quality ingredients can be used improperly), and poor customer service.
With such a maelstrom of dysfunction swirling around him, how does Ramsay even begin working on quality problems? The answer is simple: start in the engine room (the kitchen) and work your way out, as described in the previous sections.
At Regular Intervals, Reflect on Your Process and Plan Improvements
At the end of the first successful evening service, which usually occurs on the last day of Ramsay’s week on site, he facilitates a retrospective session. He is much more directive than a good ScrumMaster would be in a Sprint retrospective, but the idea is very similar. He reviews with the teams what went well and encourages them to do more of those things. He also reviews difficulties and problems, congratulates the teams on overcoming them, and encourages everyone to work to improve both their own work and the collective effort every minute of every day. It turns out that continuous improvement is a priority in the restaurant business every bit as much as it is in software or any other industry. If we try to rest on our laurels, we’ll find them brown and dead before we even know what happened.
The next time you find yourself facilitating a particularly difficult retrospective, Sprint planning meeting, or any of the myriad other situations that face Agile coaches on a daily basis, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What would Gordon Ramsay do?