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The Shift: What’s Working (and Why) Instead of What’s Not

Published April 10, 2017

As restaurant operators and leaders we are trained very early in our career on how to recognize problems. Slow service, food quality that is not up to standard, dirty restaurants and rude service are all skills we learn to recognize and “fix” as multi-unit leaders. In the last decade there has been a movement to truly diagnose the root cause of those problems and that has been a huge step in the right direction, but is it enough?

Sometimes we visit restaurants and what we see isn’t good at all. Sometimes it’s a train wreck. And then we dig in as operators to help right the ship. Addressing the issues we find in our restaurants during those kinds of visits, especially those that directly impact the guest experience, is extremely important to do. There is some magic however in making a visit and not calling out every single detail.

I made a visit to a restaurant a few years ago and wasn’t intending to stay as long as I did, but they definitely needed some extra support so I stayed through lunch. The manager at this location was new to the team, less than 60 days in, and had made some huge headway in getting the wrong people out and the right people in, but staffing was an issue and we needed more people on the team. I was impressed at the way the team was working together (another big testament to what happens when you remove low performers) and helping each other out through the lunch rush. After lunch wrapped up and we were set for dinner and the mise en place was top notch, I said my goodbyes to everyone and prepared to leave the restaurant.

As I got ready to leave the GM came up to me and said “I know there was a lot wrong today and I know you saw a lot of stuff so please tell me what we need to do better.” In that moment I made a decision to not unload on her everything that I had noticed during my visit. Instead I complimented her on the team and how well they worked together and supported each other during the shift. I told her how her leadership had made a huge impact in that restaurant in a short amount of time and that the trust she had built with her team was paying off big time. I then told her that I was confident that she knew the areas she needed to improve in and was confident that she and her team would make it happen and I would support them every step of the way. That interaction meant way more to her than giving her a list of things to fix, and that was evident on subsequent visits to that restaurant.

But what about what when we make visits and everything is firing on all cylinders and there is a deep culture of excellence? Recognizing what is wrong and knowing how to fix it is an important skill to have but recognizing what is going right, and why it is going right is just as an important if not, if not more important skill. Best-selling author, pastor, and leadership expert Andy Stanley says if you don’t know why something is working than you won’t know how to fix it when it breaks. As leaders if we spent more time focusing on what was working in our restaurants could we leverage that focus to replicate it more often? I believe we could.

In the early days of the Restaurateur program at Chipotle I remember being on visits with Steve Ells and him telling me that when he was validating Restaurateurs he was looking for reasons that they weren’t a Restaurateur, and by doing that he figured out why they were. That was a powerful lesson for me. I took that approach, modified it a bit, and really dug into my restaurants and looked at my best performing GM’s and spent a lot of time diagnosing all of the things that were going well and asking a lot of questions as to why things were working and learning how we could make those results reproducible. I sat with every team member and asked them how they were able to perform at such a high level, and they were more than happy to tell me. More often than not they gave the credit away to other people on the team, living out the philosophy of wanting more for others than they want for themselves.

In the restaurant business it is not the norm for us as leaders to celebrate the successes as much as we should and we tend to focus on the negative. I challenge you to shift your perspective. Look for reasons why things are working. When you figure out why things are working in your restaurant and understand the root cause of the goodness you are seeing, you are able to recognize, reward and celebrate the results. Most importantly you are able to create confidence in those high performing teams that they can reproduce those results in others, at possibly an even higher level than they themselves performed at. That is how you build a culture of excellence, and that is how you develop people at the highest level and reproduce yourself while building a bullet-proof culture in the process.