Simple Signals to Improve Teamwork

Lessons from the Cafe

Steve Sherlock at Tertiary Education shared a short story about the importance of providing signals in collaborative teamwork environments. The story, which comes from Jonathan Tisch’s book The Power of We, relates how Emeril Legasse of the Food Network used the position of salt and pepper shakers (of all things) on restaurant tables for sending signals between members of the wait staff.

Steve’s post inspired to Rosa Say to post about how little things she learned in restaurants hold valuable lessons for collaboration.

The story takes me back to thinking about the simple lessons I had learned about silent but effective signals while waitressing and how many there were; indeed, the restaurant business was a terrific training ground for me.

As I commented for Steve on his posting, we can get stuck at times thinking that we need big ideas, when all we really need is the consistent execution of small ones.

I used a small signally practice during my days in the restaurant business that has applications for teamwork in all settings.

Crash Avoidance

Some of the worst disasters in restaurants occur when two team members bump crash into one another. Whether cooks, waiters or bartenders, the result is usually that people get messy, product is wasted, customers are disadvantaged and tempers flair.

Despite these severe consequences, one restaurant I became responsible for averaged at least one such incident per shift. These mishaps were symptoms of a greater underlying lack-of-teamwork problem. The entire staff had fallen to a pattern of looking out for themselves, which made them unaware of each others needs, or even physical location.

Building a culture of teamwork took some time, but one small practice we adopted helped to substantially reduce the crashes almost immediately.

“Behind you.” “Coming Around.”

“Coming in.” “Coming out.” (Such as in or out of a food pick-up area or beverage station.)

These four simple phrases, when spoken openly to restaurant teammates in tight spaces, served to signal others of one’s physical location and to declare one’s intentions for movement. Once someone learned the intentions of their teammates, they could adjust their actions accordingly, thereby avoiding costly missteps. Within weeks, the formerly routine crashes became a rarity.

Applications for Other Teams

While we may not worry about physical crashes on teams in other businesses, I still find a valuable lesson from the restaurant signally system.

When team members proactively inform each other of their current status and near-term intentions, adjustments can be made to better support the efforts and avoid counterproductive conflict.

Teams can decide what mode of communication is preferred, such as email, verbal, daily stand-up meetings, etc. The key, however, is for a team to communicate frequently, as events unfold, because the pace of change may make waiting for the next team meeting too late.

I’d like to hear from others. What are the signalling techniques your teams use to communicate about each others status and near-term intentions?

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5 Responses to Simple Signals to Improve Teamwork

  1. Thanks for the reference, Blaine. This was a good story to share.

    I have also used the “standing meeting” effectively. It certainly helps to focus the meeting on the quick updates and then we get about what we need to do.

    An instant message to a compatriot on the same conference call can help to add to the conversation.

    Runners on a team in a race can talk to each other for encouragement or tips on the course or competition.

  2. Rosa Say says:

    I should have known you’ve done your turn in the restaurant business Blaine! When it comes to teamwork, restaurants are among the most fertile ground there is.

    “Coming behind you!” Remember the back-to-back spin with arms full of balancing plates through the kitchen’s swinging doors?

  3. Steve and Rosa, – Isn’t it amazing how little messages, provided at just the right time, can make a such big impact. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  4. Bilal says:

    Standup meetings are very helpful and useful. Overall a very good and informative article. Nice read. Thanks for sharing this with us. I would also like to point you to the following article on teamwork that I found while searching online, I would strongly recommend that you check it out:

  5. […] perfect example of a weak restaurant culture is rampant collisions in dining places.  Restaurant crashes result in a messy place, wastage of products, anxious customers and angry employees – a symptom […]

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