Recipes for Organizational Success

How can you apply the principles of good work at the stove to the work you do with staff?

It’s a challenge. People drawn to the lively, loveable chaos of the food business have an aversion to too much structure. It’s natural; we like the freedom of the food world because we don’t have to sit in offices or deal with large corporate structures.

Yet this aversion to systems can be problematic for those of us who have grown our businesses. To make a small startup successful, you need to work on the fly, changing ideas, concepts and procedures regularly to adapt to inevitable and unexpected problems. At the early stages, constant change is essential—it’s the only way to adapt quickly enough.

But when we get the business past its startup phase, we need to grow up. Maturing in business, as in our personal lives, means that we need to find new, more appropriate and more effective ways to relate to the world. This is when our distaste for systems can become a problem. A set of structures can feel bureaucratic and overly restrictive.

That same feeling exists within managers and staff, who often came to work with us because they were drawn to a sense of entrepreneurial freedom. We all live in fear of “becoming General Motors or some rule-laden government agency. But we need structure in place so the business can function without us. The problem becomes most obvious when you want to take a day—let alone a week, or, dare I say it, even a month—off without having everything come apart.

A woman who recently opened a restaurant stopped by the other day. Unsolicited, she told me how incredibly anxious she was to go out of town for the weekend for the first time. I reassured her that, 22 years after opening Zingerman’s, I still get worried. But I worry a lot less for two primary reasons—the great people who work here, and the increasingly better systems we’ve put in place, what we refer to as “recipes for success.

Building the Recipe Book
At Zingerman’s, these “recipes include things I’ve written about in earlier articles—3 Steps to Great Service, 5 Steps to Handling Customer Complaints, 4 Key Areas To Effectively Invest Merchandising Resources, 5 Steps to Effective (Bottom Line) Change, 3 Steps To Great Finance, etc.

Why do I use the term “recipe? Like good recipes in the kitchen, these management systems:
• Provide enough structure for a newcomer to understand what to do and help them succeed more quickly.
• Leave enough room for skilled “cooks to adapt and adjust to the “recipe when appropriate. Besides, “recipes seem to be an ideal analogy to tie cooking and management together.

Bottom line? Effective recipes for leadership and business operations work because they’re simple enough for beginners, flexible enough for experts, and very teachable.

A Move Toward Simplicity
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. As our organizations grow, they will get more complex. Longing for the old days when we just got to “do what we wanted to is very understandable. But it’s just nostalgia for an era that’s over and probably wasn’t half as much fun when we were in it as it seems to be in hindsight (think high school). Using Ichak Adizes’ analogy of organizations maturing (see sidebar below), it seems akin to trying to live like an 18-year-old when you’re 38; it can be fun for a day or two but doesn’t work for an extended period of time.

Karl Weick, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, breaks learning and solutions into three stages of development:
1. Superficial Simplicity
2. Confused Complexity
3. Profound Simplicity


Our “recipes for success in organizational life are at the level of “profound simplicity; what Holmes called the “simplicity on the other side of complexity. We have taken the complex realities of organizational life and framed them into simple, usable, meaningful recipes that help people in our organization succeed and help us deliver better food and service to our guests. They provide tools that intelligent and motivated new leaders can use to help themselves. The recipes are very down-to-earth and based on real-life experiences.

I do not mean to diminish the importance of managers and staff. But, in reality, great people without the recipes will be inconsistent. They try hard, but they do what they personally think is right. Imagine if every cook in your kitchen changed the tomato soup recipe to meet his or her personal taste. Ten cooks; ten tomato soups. Whether in the kitchen or an organization, it’s only when we have great “cooks working in tandem with well-written, well-tested recipes that we’ll create the success we’re looking for.

Where to Begin
Here is a five-part “recipe" for building a recipe. To test the concept, pick an aspect of organizational life, a process or a procedure that’s a repetitive part of your routine. It could be broad like customer service, on-shift training, or cooking. Or it could be more specific—how to count the cash, how to answer the phone, etc.

Once you’ve identified an area of emphasis, here are the five steps to create a successful “recipe":

1. Teach the recipe.
In theory, you should do the second step—“define it—before you can teach it. But I’ve learned that if we don’t commit to teaching the recipe, we’ll never make time to define it. So, take out the calendar and select a date to present your first recipe to everyone you work with. Go public with it. At that point, you are stuck. That’s when you get down to defining and documenting your recipe.

Just teaching the recipe once is not enough. Ultimately, you must teach and teach and teach it many times. “Teaching can mean formal classroom training, yet it also includes simply talking about the recipe on shift, posting it near work areas, etc.

2. Define it.
Now that you’ve made a public pronouncement, you can start writing the recipe. One month is plenty of time. Start by talking with the people who do the work. Together, write up the steps that you currently follow to accomplish the task. Number them as when you write a food recipe. Come up with a simple and catchy name. And there you go—a first draft. Like any recipe, it needs to be tested; have everyone try it for a week, taking notes on what works and doesn’t work. Review and make adjustments. Write the revised version of the recipe, and start using it.

3. Live it.
Just having the recipes alone isn’t enough—we must use them. And, I’ve learned (and re-learned more times than I’d like to admit) that if we don’t use them . . . drum roll . . . they don’t work. This is the least glamorous part: The day-to-day task of doing it—walking the talk, using the recipe, making it a part of everyday behavior within the organization. This is the most difficult part of the equation for those who started a business. “Rules are for others, not for us. But the rest of the staff is watching all the time—if we don’t follow the recipe, they surely will not either.

4. Measure it.
How do you know if you’re using the recipe? Or whether it’s working? You need to take measurements. Measure two things. First, start to track if people in the organization are using it. And secondly—and ultimately more importantly—measure the results that you wish to achieve. If the goal is to reduce mistakes on orders, track mistakes. If the recipe is targeted at better finance, track that. While a recipe on its own will not fix everything that’s wrong with the organization, you should see some meaningful improvement. Make the measurement fun, make it visible, and make sure everyone knows “the score on a regular basis.

5. Reward it.
Give recognition and rewards to those that use the recipe well. Even simple verbal appreciation is important—merely saying something positive can make a big difference. More formally, you can reward people for using the recipe. Better still, reward improved results—that way the organization and the staff both win.

Profound Simplicity
Any organization that’s successfully moved past the startup phase will benefit from seeking similar recipe solutions that can offer the staff that same level of profound simplicity. The better we get at designing and using the “recipes, the more successful we will be.

The biggest rewards will be for the organization and all its stakeholders—customers, staff, suppliers, investors, and managers. Good people, using well-written recipes, create the kind of success that Adizes wrote about in his description of an organization effectively operating in “prime condition. The recipes help us to more effectively reach our goals, reduce stress, improve service, and make a more enjoyable place to work. This ultimately improves the quality of our food, our service and our finance. All of which makes work more fun.