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The Official Baldrige Blog

Consider a Busy Restaurant Kitchen as a System

restaurant kitchen

I am frequently asked about the meaning of systems perspective or about the difference between aligned processes (alignment) and integrated processes (integration). I recently read an HBR blog post entitled "Optimizing each part of a firm doesn't optimize the whole firm." A key point was that improving each part of an enterprise does not necessarily lead to improving the whole enterprise or to operational excellence. Several examples were given of failures and successes achieved by either looking at only the parts or at the whole enterprise, respectively. Looking at the optimization of individual parts led not just to sub-optimization, but frequently to overall system failures.

While not touched upon in the blog post, there was an accompanying picture of a large professional kitchen with many sous-chefs. I realized that here was an opportunity to describe the concepts of alignment, integration, and systems perspective.

Let's consider the preparation of a set of meals for three diners at a table in the large restaurant served by this kitchen. Each sous chef upon arrival of an order could execute his or her piece of the dinner perfectly. They have optimized their piece of the meal. Unfortunately the hot fish appetizer for one of the guests may be available five minutes after the ice cream dessert which is either served first or sits melting away. This restaurant has a random collection of independently well-functioning processes. They will soon be out of business!

Next consider the aligned kitchen. The sous chef responsible for sauces begins her sauce when the fish is cooked, so that she can take the assembly line hand-off and prepare a hot sauce to go on top of the fish. She then sends it to the garnish chef who adds the finishing touches. Timing is exquisite. Everyone knows when to start their process, immediately on arrival of the plate. Processes are aligned in sequence, but the guest receives a cold piece of fish because of the time lag since the fish was first put on the plate.

Now let's consider that all three chefs know the fish preparation takes eight minutes, the sauce two minutes, and the garnish two minutes. The sauce sous chef begins her preparation six minutes after the fish chef so that the sauce is ready as the fish is put on the plate. The garnish sous chef begins his preparation seven minutes after the fish preparation begins, allowing one minute after the fish is done for plating and addition of the sauce. The result is an integrated appetizer preparation process with a total time lapse of nine minutes and a happy diner! Or is she happy?

There has been no coordination of the fish preparation with the escargot appetizer preparation of her two table companions. The escargot takes fifteen minutes to prepare. So either the appetizers are served and eaten at different times or the fish sits and gets cold while waiting for the escargot. In a fully integrated appetizer section, the fish preparation would start six minutes after the escargot preparation begins so that all appetizers are completed and served hot at the same time.

But the diners may still be unhappy at the end of their meals. While they all received their appetizers simultaneously, their main courses simultaneously, and their desserts simultaneously, there was a 40 minute gap from the completion of their appetizers to the dinner service, and then only two minutes from completion of their main courses until arrival of desserts. Not particularly good pacing for our three guests!

Now, consider the ultimate dining experience. Not only are the three separate kitchen departments individually integrated, but the head chef, who has purview over the full kitchen, sequences the orders so that the gap between courses matches the desires of the diners at each table. A true systems perspective orchestrated at the enterprise level. I am getting hungry already!    

About the author

Harry Hertz “The Baldrige Cheermudgeon”

I am Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon, and Director Emeritus of the Baldrige Program. I joined the Program in 1992 after a decade in management in the analytical chemistry and chemical sciences laboratories at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the home of the Baldrige Program. I started my career at NIST (NBS) as a bench analytical chemist.

My favorite aspects of the Baldrige Program are: (1) the opportunity to interact with leading thinkers from all sectors of the U.S. economy who serve as volunteers in the Baldrige Program, who participate in the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program, and who represent Award applicants at the forefront of the continuous journey to performance excellence, and (2) the intellectual challenge of synthesizing ideas from leading thinkers and from personal research into Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence and other blogs that tackle challenges at the “leading edge of validated leadership and performance practice,” and contribute to the continuous revision of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework.

Outside of work I spend my time with family (including three beautiful granddaughters), exercising, baking bread, traveling, educating tomorrow’s leaders, and participating on various boards and board committees.

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You nailed it with this analogy, Harry! What a great way to differentiate between alignment and integration - and then tie it all back to a true systems perspective for success. You've caused me to see systems engineering in a whole new light!
Thanks Kellie. I have been searching for an analogy for years and then this blog picture just triggered the idea!
I worked my way through High School and my undergraduate schools working in the kitchens of a number of restaurants (and had to be certified as a food handler supervisor). The thinking process here reminds me of how much I enjoyed those days of calling out orders to ensure that everything was sync'd properly for the servers to pick up and deliver completed meals in a timely manner. I have often used that experience to illustrate metrology and quality concepts. In fact, I'll be giving a talk next month about metrology and opportunities at NIST and will share an example of working in a restaurant kitchen, and the importance of TEMPERATURE to food storage (both cold and hot) and accuracy of the temperature and potential for getting the patrons sick if food is not at the proper temperatures (not just unhappy). So, I really liked this blog about systems alignment and quality; and think about metrology and accuracy of the measurements which also play a part in a well functioning kitchen.
Dr. Hertz, Your example is a wonderful way to convey the meaning of system integration. I look forward to repeating your example the next time I'm asked to explain it. Thank you.
Well done as usual, Harry. Add suppliers, reservations, reception, seating, drink service, order taking and check out, and it would seem you have a work system. (An integrated work system?)
Thanks for the comment Bill. Let's hope it is an integrated work system! That's where the Baldrige scoring rubric can help.

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