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Out Of The Weeds  

Have you ever thought that there has to be an easier way to run a restaurant?

For many people, operating a foodservice operation (or most businesses, for that matter) is like being lost in the jungle. Perhaps being lost in the weeds is a more appropriate phrase in the restaurant industry! Every day we show up and hack away at the weeds, trying to keep a clear-enough space to operate. The work is hot, we get sweaty, our backs ache, the bugs bite and we have to keep an eye out for snakes. Still, we can't stop cutting for very long because the weeds grow back quickly whenever we take a break.

In the world of weeds, people are always looking for a better way to cut. Breakthroughs are things like improved cutting techniques (". . . for maximum efficiency, keep your elbow straight and swing from the shoulder . . .") and there is endless debate about cutting implements (" . . . curved blades are better than straight blades . . .") There are chain saw freaks, napalm advocates, poison promoters and so forth. Everybody has a favorite way to clear the weeds.

People make careers of studying the different weeds, learning their technical names and researching their growth patterns. There are lots of weed management programs and each has its supporters and detractors. Consultants get rich showing people new and unusual ways to hack away at their particular set of weeds but in the end, all we have are just different variations on weed-cutting.

Occasionally we may hear about people who dare to say that our cutting skills are unnecessary and who are so bold as to suggest there is a world without weeds. What madness! We can quickly dismiss them as crackpots who obviously don't understand restaurant reality as we continue to hack away, all the while cursing the weeds.

We know that weed-cutting is back-breaking work but it is the only world most operators know. Besides, we say with some pride, we are starting to know the weeds much better and we developing a pretty good cutting stroke! We are spurred on by our naive belief that if we only continue to apply ourselves diligently to the task, we will be able to get ahead of the weeds and when we do, our lot will somehow magically change.

What are we pretending not to know?

The truth is that nothing much ever changes in the world of weeds. If we could achieve the kind of enjoyable, productive organizations we dream about through enhanced cutting skills, we would already be seeing that sort of result. The inescapable truth is that we are getting better and better at doing things that don't really work!

Albert Einstein once observed, "You can't solve a problem on the level at which it was created." In other words, the thinking that got us into a problem is not going to get us out! To apply this to our analogy here, if we ever want to get out of the weed-cutting business, we first have to raise our level. We have to climb a tree. Actually, the first breakthrough is to recognize there is even such a thing as a tree. In the world of weeds, trees just look like particularly nasty weeds!

If we are able to go up a tree a bit - if we can look at our world from a different perspective - we will clearly see is that the weeds only grow in the one small area around us. Right next to the weed patch is a beach with a little bar. Once we can see that, common sense will take over. We clearly see that we could just as easily be sitting in the sun with a cold beer - all we have to do is choose to walk out of the weed patch! The crazy folks were right - we never had to cut weeds in the first place but we couldn't see that for ourselves until we allowed our perspective to expand. We were lost and didn't know it.

Now weed-cutting was certainly the way I learned the restaurant business. In one of the country's premier hospitality degree programs - and in most every foodservice job I held - I was taught that this is a killer business where you need to work 18 hours a day, 8 days a week. That's what it takes to be successful in the hospitality game and if I was not willing to make that kind of a commitment I should look for another line of work. It was like gravity and I never questioned it. You may have bought into this myth too.

The cost the industry has paid for this lack of understanding is staggering, measured in terms of low profits, burnout, turnover, broken marriages, substance abuse and an impossible level of stress. The sad truth is that a majority of the problems most operators must deal with in daily operations are not inherent problems of the foodservice industry but simply very predictable symptoms of their level of understanding and their model of management. Change your perspective and you can change your life.

While I was refining my stroke and putting in the hours (120 hours a week in one job!), I couldn't help but feel there just had to be an easier way to run a restaurant. Now I am definitely a hard worker but I am not a masochist so I started looking for other approaches that might be more effective.

Perhaps because I was actively looking, I was fortunate enough to cross paths with some people who were doing breakthrough work in the area of individual and organizational functioning. To follow the analogy, they were able to point out a tree in the middle of my weed patch and showed me how to climb it. When I saw a bigger picture, I was suddenly, painlessly and permanently out of the weeds and on the beach! The "people side" of my work was suddenly effortless and the difference in my effectiveness was earthshaking!

You know what it is like in the weeds but what is it like to operate on the beach? Here is the way one CEO who saw a different picture described his "new" company:

Imagine . . .

. . . a work place where the environment is calm, yet people are intensely involved in work activities.

. . . business meetings so enjoyable and productive that people leave more energized than when they arrived.

. . . managers making decisions based on reflection rather than from fear or by knee jerk reaction to circumstances.

. . . a work force so resilient that disruptive factors like disappointment and change have but a very temporary effect.

. . . the energy so often wasted dealing with interpersonal and individual stress being put, instead, into the work itself.

. . . an environment where there's no concern about motivating people with incentives or pressure since people are generally happy and productive.

. . . morale at such a high level that staff and managers arrive home from work in a state of mind that actually increases the well-being of the people in their lives, rather than detracting from it.

. . . an organization that has trust and confidence in its staff, allowing them to be responsible for their own thinking.

. . . a happy, healthy and productive group of men and women who actualize levels of ability and service which they did not even know they were capable of.

. . . taking your company to a higher level than you ever dreamed possible through accessing the fundamental innate intelligence of your staff.

From my own experience, I can verify that this picture is not only accurate but entirely realistic in the foodservice industry. All organizations are capable of functioning in this way and the extent to which you are not seeing these qualities in your own company is the extent to which your operating style, with all good intent, is getting in the way.

The shift from the weeds to the beach starts with a willingness to entertain the notion that there are possibilities that you have not seen yet. One seminar I attended spoke of three possible types of information: things we know that we know, things that we know that we don't know and things that we don't know that we don't know.

In other words, we all have blind spots, we just don't know where they are (which is, of course, what makes them blind spots!) You can't reach the beach until you are willing to set aside your attachment to the weeds. When you can drop judgements and personal ego long enough to open yourself to new insights, you will be amazed at what you can see.

The second step toward a weed-free life is to realize that you don't know how to get there from where you are. If you did, you wouldn't be working so hard or feeling so stressed and you certainly wouldn't be dealing with the types of problems you are dealing with. It seems that the humility required to honestly admit that you don't have a clue is a major aid to finally seeing the path toward an easier life.

While all this may sound too good to be true, I promise that the beach exists and that you can get there. I also stress that making the shift involves increasing your understanding, not your knowledge. You are looking for what some describe as a blinding flash of the obvious . . . and that will come from a personal insight rather than from linear (reasoned) thinking. You already have the answer but you cannot see it because it is not on the information channel. Rather the shift comes from suddenly recognizing some simple, common sense truths that have been right in front of you all along and that, because of conditioned thinking, you simply never fully understood before.

In the next articles I will examine the elements that will help you make this shift for yourself.

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