Gordon Ramsay's recipe for effective IT

CIOs could learn a thing or two from the colourful chef, says Virginia Robbins

One of my favourite TV shows is Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Thanks to TiVo and a recent foggy Sunday afternoon, I ended up watching four episodes back to back.

Owning and operating a restaurant and running an IT department couldn’t be more different, right? Most corporate IT departments’ customers are captive and large projects need to be planned months, if not years, in advance. The restaurant equivalent would be to offer only two choices for a lunch that is going to be served in three months. And it will be served exactly at noon.

So what are the parallels between a restaurant and an IT department? Well, both are service businesses; each tries to meet customer demand in a way that generates a reasonable profit in a highly competitive business where customers have choices.

That makes this question relevant: how does Ramsay turn around these restaurants? The advantage of watching four episodes back-to-back is that his formula quickly becomes clear. He starts with communication — between the boss and the entire staff, between the kitchen and the host, and between the kitchen and the waiting staff. He watches for unresolved conflicts, whether it’s staffers who can’t tell their boss that customers aren’t happy or a boss who isn’t assertive enough. He forces people to talk to one another and to clearly delineate their respective responsibilities. In one episode, Ramsay had a rather mousy older woman practise talking to pictures of her employees before she told them exactly how to perform. In another, he used an egg as a communication device; staff members couldn’t interrupt as long as the speaker held the egg.

Ramsay uses what my mother would call “colourful” language. Of all of his methods to improve communication, it’s the only one I wouldn’t use.

Once Ramsay has got everyone talking to everyone else, he tackles marketing, product delivery and pricing. In my personal marathon of episodes, his message was to update menus, keep supply (raw food) costs low, raise prices to market levels and make sure the product that’s delivered is what the diner requested, not what suits the staff. In the IT world, this translates into getting rid of older standards, dealing with local companies to improve service, keeping inter-departmental charges reasonable and making sure your products suit your customers’ needs.

The last step in Ramsay’s quick-turnaround process is to require management and staff to eat in the restaurant on their days off. He demands that they have the same experience that their customers have. In the IT department, that means that if the average age of your equipment is 20 months, then you get a 20-month-old PC; if the standard application is Office 2000, then you get Office 2000. Whenever I’ve required this of technology staff, I’ve had many complaints: “I know how to use a computer so I should get the newest one”, and, “We in IT need to test the new products to see if they work.”

Yes, yes, yes. But who’s going to fight for your customers if you don’t understand how they feel? How quickly do you think you’d reduce the average age of equipment if you had to suffer along with other employees? That age would be down in a flash.

This doesn’t mean that IT should be last on the list; you need to fight for your staff, too. But meeting customers’ needs comes first. As Ramsay says, if you don’t know what your food tastes like, you’re not cooking.

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