A restaurant kitchen may seem like chaos, and yet it functions well even during surges in demand and unexpected challenges. Adaptability, clear communications, and a commitment to an orderly and efficient process help things run smoothly. Many IT departments could learn a thing or two about this.

by Sanjeev NC
Date Published October 1, 2020 - Last Updated October 20, 2020

Imagine a typical day in the kitchen, what do you see? A highly chaotic environment where everyone is juggling multiple things, almost bumping into each other as they go about their day.

Observe closer. You'll notice that everyone knows the next step instantly. Most instructions are not delivered but mplied. And no one's searching for utensils or ingredients when they need it; they are just there.

This is not by accident. Chefs are trained to plan, unlike many of the rest of us who are trained on technical skills, but left to fend for ourselves when it comes to planning. As Dan Charnas observes in Everything in Its Place, there is a lot of similarity between the kitchen and the office. I'm narrowing the focus further - there is a lot of similarity between the kitchen and IT, and we can learn a lot from how a successful commercial kitchen operates.

The two environments overlap in:


You never know what might break. You never know what the next order is going to be. Both parties have to plan with a lot of unknown variables and make a lot of assumptions.

And yet, you're more likely to see something burning in IT than the kitchen.

Constant stream of inputs

Ingredients. Data. Orders. Tickets. New computers. New utensils. You get the idea. Both the kitchen and IT deal with a constant stream of inputs that must be processed to provide value (food).

And yet, you're more likely to see IT delivering something that leaves a bad taste in the customers’ mouths.

Simultaneous tasks

You don't find the entire kitchen huddled around a single oven diverting all their attention to one complicated dish; that's just not how a kitchen works. Similarly, you don't find the entire IT team focused on just one incident or one emergency fix. There are always many dishes cooking.

And yet, you're more likely to see IT let things overflow.

So why are chefs better than this?

Understanding mise-en-place

For chefs, planning is not an option. They work with perishable resources, a ticking clock, and hungry customers. They cannot afford to get it wrong, so the culinary arts have focused the attention on developing a system that ensures predictability. They teach young chefs to improvise and adapt, and it's ingrained into their ways of working.

If we're to agree that IT shares similarity with the kitchen, what could our system be? It's definitely not ITIL or COBIT. It's the concept of mise-en-place, and I'm stealing that concept from the kitchen.

At its core, mise-en-place means "everything in its place". For chefs and cooks in the kitchen, it’s not an idea, it's a way of life. It's not about cooking, it's about achieving excellence.

Here are five lessons we can learn from the kitchen and the mise-en-place ethos:

Be honest with time

All of us love to-do-lists. Creating them is our favorite to-do. But such lists too often forget the most important factor - time is finite.

Instead of creating infinite to-dos, try scheduling them. Your calendar is finite. It painfully reminds you that your time is limited. it helps you be more mindful of your time, and that means fewer meetings and reasonable expectations.

Clean up the invisible mess

Many of us have an organizational system, but we never maintain it. We always push it to the back of our mind when a more urgent task comes up.

Chefs don't have that luxury. If they're not organized, things either burn or stink.

We make messes everywhere in our digital environment, but it's just not a visible mess. The tools we use everyday must be cleaned up, and we know it. Make a conscious effort to clean them or it will digitally stink.

Unfinished projects are useless

We love starting new projects. The initial burst of inspiration keeps us going for a bit, but then it fizzles out. It's now an email, a piece of code, or a sticky note lying untouched somewhere.

The kitchen cannot operate like that. A dish that's 90% finished is the same as a dish that's 0% finished. They don't have the luxury to store unfinished dishes on a server, and that means they're a lot more careful while choosing a new project.

Painfully detest waste

The kitchen is always optimized for total utilization in four areas - space, resources, time, and energy. Not doing so is expensive. It's so easy to identify waste in a kitchen because it's visible.

Waste in our world is slightly more tricky, but it can be identified. Tune your mind to look for waste everywhere in the system and eliminate it (or reduce it).

Communicate in harmony

One of the unnoticed aspects of a kitchen is how everyone within the space is perfectly in tune with each other. They share a common language, there is no back and forth on clarifications, and no one needs to be told twice.
This clarity should be sought after among everyone on your IT team, and even, when possible, between IT and clients.

Final thoughts

While it's fascinating to think about the kitchen and steal ideas for IT, we must also take it with a pinch of salt (ahem). While the similarities exist, the end goals differ. Striving for efficiency, clear communication, and clarity of goals, however, can create a sauce that goes well over everything.

Sanjeev NC started his career in IT service desk and moved over to process consulting where he led award winning ITSM tool implementations. Sanjeev is passionate about user experience and evangelizes a concept called selfless service as an evolution of self-service. Sanjeev was also a highly commended finalist for Young ITSM Professional of the year in itSMF UK’s annual awards. Sanjeev is currently on a mission to ensure that every customer support interaction yields the best possible experience. Follow him on Twitter @yenceesanjeev.

Tag(s): supportworld, best practice, agile, capacity management, change management, communications skills


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