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.
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.
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?