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Operations

Instilling a sense of urgency in prep staff

prep staff
Photograph: Shutterstock

Question:

How do I instill a sense of urgency in my prep team? They are good but take so long to get stuff done.

– Owner, fast casual

Answer:

There are a few universal truths that all restaurant operators seem to share: Margins are too thin, costs are too high, and labor is too slow. It is very hard to teach an employee to move faster without sacrificing quality or accuracy. I have seen a variety of strategies work but have not found an easy, one-size-fits-all fix. Each employee will have some different motivations, and each restaurant culture will have its own norms for how to achieve efficiency.

Here are some strategies I’ve used and collected from others that may be helpful:

 

  • Structure the tasks in bites. There seems to be a truism that the work to be done expands to the time allotted to do it. As an expert, you know how long it should take to do a task. Rather than saying, “Please cut these fries,” leaving the pacing up to the employee, possibly taking all day, try segmenting the day based on reasonable expectations: “Please cut these fries. You should be able to get them done by 10:30, and then we’ll do something else.”
  • Lose the phones. I am all for music in the kitchen, especially for prep times. It breaks the monotony, builds community, and upbeat music can help with pacing. But when everyone is listening on individual devices, things can get slow. All of those little beeps and bings from texts and notifications need tending, and it is too easy to lose focus. Add to that the sanitation limitations, and you have every reason to keep phones out of the kitchen.
  • Predict and challenge. Make a game of prep and self-improvement. Some employees are slow because they have no real sense of how long something should take. When embarking on a task, ask them to set a goal—“I’m going to have this bag of onions sliced by 11:15”—and follow up to ask how they did. The next day, see if they can shave two minutes off their time from yesterday.
  • Model. Is your prep staff really slow, or are you just impatient? Would you do it better? Model how things should be done by getting your hands dirty and showing them how do get it done quickly. I once had an employee portioning proteins to the gram. Once I explained that ballpark was fine, he sped up immeasurably.
  • Systems and setup. Use your management expertise and industry experience to make sure things are properly structured. Is the slowness the problem, or is it a symptom of an inefficient system? Look at your kitchen setup, flow of food and the employee’s station setup to ensure they are optimizing the process. For example, if an employee needs to keep running to the walk-in because you don’t have a cart available, you may be frustrated by the symptom rather than the problem.
  • Incentives. Research shows that positive rewards are more effective than negative reinforcement in motivating employees. Incentives need not be elaborate or expensive but may be enough to get people moving. “If we can get this list done before 3, we can take a longer break; if you can take on these extra tasks, you can choose tomorrow’s staff meal,” and so on.

 

In addition, there are many technology tools that can help with workflow, from simple stop watches and alarms to more elaborate task management software and apps. One thing I’ve found is that low-tech, simple and friendly reminders can also work wonders. Saying, “These look great. Can you get them done a little faster?” may instantly improve the rhythm of a kitchen.


More on sense of urgency here.

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