On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

The quiet kitchen and high-performance teams

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

A few days ago I had the pleasure of dining at L'Atelier, Joel Robuchon's world-class restaurant.

Kitchen Door - iStock 000009481355XSmallCustomers are seated so they can overlook (and overhear) meal preparation in the kitchen. The food and service were great, and if this were a restaurant review, I'd simply tell you to go there (and order the chef's tasting menu!). But this is a blog about teams; so what can we learn about high-performance teams from watching a culinary team in action?

 

The kitchen team at L'Atelier demonstrated three attributes that I often see in high-performing teams.

1. The team was fairly quiet. The restaurant was full and each dining party expected a smooth, impeccably-prepared meal, with multiple courses of complexly-designed food arriving on-time – often paired with different wines. The team had to coordinate many moving parts to meet high customer expectations. Yet interestingly the amount and volume of communications were fairly low. There was no superfluous conversation; mostly short, quiet, targeted requests and confirmations along with the occasional gentle "bell" rung by a kitchen expeditor.

You often hear that teamwork is based on communication. Sometimes this gets misinterpreted as "we need to communicate more." More is not always better. Research has shown that as high-performance teams develop, they may talk less rather than more -- if they have learned their jobs, share a common understanding of priorities, and know one another well. This kitchen team at L'Atelier had undergone extensive training and worked together as a fairly intact crew for several years, which allowed them to communicate efficiently and coordinate "implicitly." They communicated better, not just more.

2. Team members backed-up one another and adjusted seamlessly. Throughout the evening team members monitored one another, often sliding over to help someone else with a task such as wiping the rim of a plate or adding a garnish to keep things moving and ensure that quality remained high. There didn't appear to be a defined pattern of when this occurred, rather team members seemed to make small, real-time adjustments to help as needed. In addition to monitoring one another, team members also did their own quality control with high attention to detail, down to the level of using tweezers to adjust where food was located on a plate.

3. Team members quickly huddled to address a unique, "non-routine" demand. Late in the evening a party of six arrived and hit the staff with an unusual request that they could not handle through the same quiet coordination and seamless back-up behaviors they had been demonstrating. The special request involved incorporating large portions of shaved white truffles in an "off menu" manner. White truffles are an expensive item and this appeared to be an important table, so what did the team do? A few of them quickly huddled up and brainstormed solutions. It appeared that the people with the most experience, regardless of their role, were involved. At one point a gentleman in a suit and tie joined the huddle (we jokingly wondered if it might be their accountant to help calculate the price!). Once a solution was reached, they quickly shifted into execution mode, shaving truffles and creating the dish.

This kitchen team demonstrated what a well-trained, coordinated, high-performing team can do. They communicated efficiently when performing standard tasks, seamlessly monitored and backed up one another to address small fluctuations in demand, and when a non-routine demand emerged, they transitioned into innovation mode, huddling and involving the right people to create and execute a non-standard solution.

L'Atelier lived up to its gastronomic reputation and in so doing they revealed that they understand a bit about teamwork as well.

So, what would I see if I watched your team performing their jobs in the equivalent of an "open kitchen?" Would I see them handle routine tasks with efficient communications? Back-up one another seamlessly? What type of "off menu" requests do they face? Do they huddle up and innovate to address them effectively?