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Cooking Up Innovation

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Picture the most innovative environment you can.  A lab? A design studio? How about a restaurant’s kitchen?

It is amazing in our travels how often people cite the kitchen as the hot-bed of innovation, leadership and much more. Think about the common ground. The pressure cooker environment where every task is mission critical and execution is all.  Think of the time management, budget control, quality, leadership and motivation issues. Think of a place where military precision meets customer delight, via branded JIT assembly. The chefs of the world can – and perhaps should — teach business leaders a thing or two. Think Chef Executive Officer.

Need convincing? Spend an evening in a restaurant kitchen and you realize that tight deadlines, relentless pressure, ever more demanding customers and troubles with raw materials are not the monopoly of the management world. The kitchens of the world and their leaders offer abundant lessons for executives prepared to dip a finger into the sauce and take a taste.

Executives are used to mental rather than physical stress (unless you count the odd business trip). A chef gets both types of stress at once — all the time and with little relief. A chef’s business environment usually doesn’t include a corner office with a leather couch and wet bar, for example. Forget the corporate health club or expense account. Chefs don’t have time or budgets for such luxuries. What they do have is incredible stamina and a genuine and tireless enthusiasm for the product. Not a bad start for a business leader.

Chefs are managers. They need to be able to manage and motivate their staff under enormous time pressure.  They need to be skilled at selecting staff who can work to strict processes but at the same time not to stifle their individuality, upon which the future of the restaurant will depend. They need to be able to manage an often multi cultural team who have a high turnover and, as a result, require constant training.

For executives, the potential learning opportunities are obvious. The only problem is that kitchens are often very small, crowded places. They can be – perhaps need to be — dungeon-like, steamy, odour-filled.  All are busy, very busy. Cramming a quizzical troupe of executives into a functioning kitchen is impractical. And so, on your behalf, we have undertaken a cook’s tour in search of the business lessons from the kitchen.

The late Sumantra Ghoshal of London Business School identified a major change in management thinking, arguing that we are moving beyond strategy to purpose; beyond structure to process; and beyond systems to people. And if you want to reduce the chef’s sauce to its innovative essence, purpose, process and people are the base ingredients. 

The people factor is evident as soon as you open a kitchen door. Chefs are natural born leaders. They have to be. But, theirs is an often brutal brand of human resource management. It’s physical and mental. “Chefs are totally politically incorrect,” one doyen of the kitchen confessed to us. People are chivvied along, shouted at, sworn at and, sometimes, bullied. At least that’s the stereotype – one adhered to by TV chefs who realize that it makes for entertainment as well as spot on soufflés.

There are some signs that the traditional approach to managing people in the kitchen is changing.  Typical of the new breed is the British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. Oliver’s charm is that he is the boy next door who can cook. He reinvents the chef as a fun-loving, cheeky chap rather than an ogrish megalomaniac with a booming voice. Oliver’s latest book is Rock’n Roll Cuisine, hot rather than haute cuisine.

At a practical level, chef-style people management offers a number of useful business insights.  For all the talk of organizational democracy, ultimately leaders are dictators – benign or otherwise. The buck has to stop somewhere. Someone has to be in charge and tell the rest of us what to do. Recent history vividly demonstrates that leadership is nothing without accountability. Accountability comes from putting your personal reputation on the line – each and every day. In a kitchen it is instantly clear who is in charge – and if it isn’t there is a problem.

A related point about managing people is that teams require clarity. In successful kitchens there is absolute clarity as to who does what and when. The pastry chef is not about to start chopping up the carrots or lean over to stir the chef’s special recipe sauce. Hierarchy is alive, well and necessary to get the job done.

Another element concerns knowledge and learning. Great chefs can get away with foul mouthed tirades because their expertise at creating wonderful dishes is beyond reproach. People work with them to learn. Knowledge is passed on. All great chefs have spent time learning in the kitchen of their predecessors.

Teaching, coaching and mentoring are traditional parts of the kitchen experience. Though the developmental role of the chef executive officer is usually overlooked, there are carrots as well as sticks, encouragement as well as Vesuvian outbursts. Habitually hands-on, chefs learn by doing and teach by demonstrating to others. Those who don’t pay attention receive short shrift. Indeed, no matter where you are, there is a very high turnover of staff in kitchens. The result is that chefs are always looking for the next input of talent and the best judge themselves on how well the youngsters in their kitchens are developing.

This educational process requires a high degree of openness. Typically, chefs manage people in a direct, honest and demanding way. Stretch goals are built into every shift. Politicking is simply not acceptable. Machiavelli couldn’t cook. Linked to this is a willingness to accept criticism. Plain speaking is a given. In a short-term results oriented environment, people are inclined to take criticism as either deserved, constructive or the meaningless letting off of accumulated steam. “You need to deal with crises as they arise – shout it out and then forget it and get on with the work,” one chef told us. This means that knowledge can be speedily passed down from the chef to aspiring chefs and that only those with thick skins survive.

Paradoxically, those who are at the rough end of a chef’s tongue often turn into loyal acolytes and stars in their own right.  The Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay, for example, is renowned for his guttural Anglo Saxon way with four letter words.  He was a professional soccer player in a previous incarnation. And yet, the people who work with him are very loyal. Several have gone on to be chefs in their own right and co-owners of his restaurants.

The second source of potential lessons is the process which lies behind the food on your plate. Michael Dell built a business on superior logistics management. The entire reengineering movement of the 1990s was based on streamlining business processes to make them more efficient. But when it comes to serious process — process that squeezes every last drop of time and motion saving without compromising product quality — chefs have been leading the way for years.

Chefs personify TQM – even though most have never so much as opened a management text book. There inspirations are more likely to be the Victorian Mrs. Beeton than W Edwards Deming. “Great care should be taken that nothing is thrown away, or suffered to be wasted in the kitchen, which might, by proper management, be turned to good account,” advised Mrs. Beeton. Over a century later and Japanese management, galvanized by TQM, fretted about mudda — waste.

Clarity of process facilitates complexity. The supply chain has never been so meticulously clean or well seasoned.

The final ingredient is a sense of purpose. For the chef executive officer, preparing food is far more than just a job. It is a vocation, a calling. This is clear in the energy and enthusiasm they generate. Great chefs are inspirational and aspirational. They lead from the front. They make the most of raw materials and are always prepared to roll up their sleeves. Even if they are restaurant owners and laden with Michelin stars, chefs habitually rise early to seek out the best raw materials at the local markets. Entrepreneurs sweat the small stuff. None more so than chefs.

Chefs possess an unashamed obsession for the product.  Indeed, in many ways the kitchen environment is akin to an entrepreneurial incubator.  A well-managed kitchen buzzes with all the excitement of a start-up. The culture is built around surviving until tomorrow, living on the edge.  Paperwork is minimal – an order from the restaurant is enough to set everything in gloriously frenetic motion.

As with great entrepreneurs, chefs are in tune with their customers. They are passionate about presenting perfection and perfection requires obsession.

The entrepreneurial element to the chef’s job explains why so many chefs are tempted to set up their own restaurants and then chains of restaurants. They are driven people – driven to always seek perfection. As with all entrepreneurial ventures, some work and others fall by the wayside. 

Even so, while there may be no simple recipe for executive success, there are valuable lessons in the way chefs go about their business.  Companies and kitchens which succeed in managing people, processes and purpose maximize their chances of success. In an era when executives have been caught with their hands in the corporate cookie jar, chefs offer a timely reminder that management is first and foremost about getting the job done – not the size of your salary. Innovation is a subtle blend of ingredients and flavors, best seasoned with a large pinch of salt.

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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