A lesson in process and management from “Hell’s Kitchen”

August 20, 2008

Chef Gordon Ramsay knows how to keep a production line in order. In one episode he yells: “It’s mush! It’s mush, it’s mush, it’s mush!!!!! The halibut’s dry, and right now two of the guests have sent food back. HURRY UP!”

Although his methods are somewhat less orthodox than the average kitchen (read: an explosive temper, mostly filled with enraged expletives and flying plates), the award-winning world class chef knows a thing or two about preparing food to perfection.

Ramsay’s latest project, Hell’s Kitchen, is a Fox series where 15 contestants spend several weeks competing for the top spot as executive chef in Ramsay’s new restaurant. The competition is brutal: grueling hours, merciless chores and preparation and frequent humiliation. One might even call it “Boot Camp for Chefs”.

What was interesting about watching the first seven episodes of Hell’s Kitchen – Season 4, are the consistent themes that determine each person’s success or failure:

1. LEADERSHIP – the ability to take charge, motivate the staff, get them talking and execute a perfectly timed delivery, admitting to your mistakes and taking responsibility for them;

2. TEAM WORK– dealing with many different personalities, working with your strengths and weaknesses, putting your ego aside for the sake of the team, encouraging  and supporting people and giving constructive feedback;

3. COMMUNICATION – constantly talking with teammates to synchronize execution, counting down the minutes until each item of food is prepared, calling out for help and constantly confirming information to ensure understanding.

4. FOCUS – despite the constant chaos around each person, the high-pace and the constant pressure to execute perfectly each tim,

5. PROCESS – Flawless execution depends on following a very strict process. This includes proper preparation and then exact, minute by minute manipulation using various degrees of temperature. It requires being detail-oriented, being methodical, precise and an excellent palette. It’s also knowing the recipes and how to follow them inside out.

6. COMMON LANGUAGE – Each chef needs to be able to decipher what it means to cream, sautee, broil, filet, etc. This ensures that each person is on the same page, delivering the same measure of quality.

Sound familiar? Cooking, just like assembling a computer chip, issuing a mortgage or building a bridge, each of the key factors are necessary to exceed expectations and delight customers every time. Although Tatham’s Boot Camp for Executives is not over several weeks – the concepts are the same: each participant is required to put their ‘old’ thinking away and learn a new way of operating in order to survive. And just like Ramsay’s chefs, each person comes away from Boot Camp has learned something new about themselves, something new about their organization and more importantly, something new about how to always focus on the customer.