When I was younger I worked in kitchens. Everyone who has read Tony Bourdain (among others) or watched any of the Gordon Ramsey shows probably thinks they have a clear idea of what working in a kitchen is like - and would scoff at the idea that those working in start-ups could learn anything from such a messed up, chaotic and archaic world.
In fact - I've long said that people working in start-ups should spend as much time as possible watching chefs at work and talking to real working chefs to understand and learn.
There are some very valuable lessons to learn from working in a kitchen - and many of these lessons are directly applicable to the life of a start-up employee.
You're Part of a Team
Your average kitchen may seem like a collection of crazy, dysfunctional misfits - but in a well-run operation it's an incredibly efficient and optimized machine back there. Very few businesses do so much with so little and under such pressure and duress.
The key to this working in a kitchen is that everyone understands that they are part of a team. And everyone acts like they are part of a team. All the time. Instead of acting like a loose collection of individuals, folks accept and even embrace that they are a part of something larger and more important than they are.
I've seen start-ups that come close to the sort of "parts of a machine" model of a good kitchen, but they are rare (and are usually the most efficient start-ups with the highest output in the business).
Many of the reasons why kitchens work fall out of this team orientation. We would be smart to try to understand and adopt.
Trust - and Focus
In a kitchen you trust the other members of your crew to do their jobs well. Doing your job well depends in many cases on them doing their job well. But you can never start wondering if they're doing things right - you can never start watching them to see if they're fucking up. That's someone else's job. Your job is to do your job - and to have the backs of the other people on the line with you.
By trusting that everyone else is doing their job well - and that if they're not someone else is going to solve it - you can focus purely on what you need to get done. In addition, you know that everyone else is counting on you holding up your end of the bargain.
Sometimes people fall down on the job. Then the crew has to have their back. If, however, they simply cannot do the job - the crew has to know that this will get resolved.
Start-ups are, in my experience, pretty bad at this. They tend to fall into one of three camps. First, the completely dysfunctional ones where people don't trust each other to do their jobs well, people are failing, and it's not being addressed. Those companies tend to fail quickly. Second, companies that are good on the "trust" side ("I'm just heads down, doing my job, don't care about what you're doing or not doing") but terrible on making sure that people are actually living up to expectations of the team. These companies tend to have scaling problems, tend to have inconsistency issues, and in the end tend to have real morale problems. The last, most common, type is the company that is great on accountability and oversight but terrible on trust. These are companies that have deep and complicated metrics systems for individual performance and have significant management overhead and a lot of meetings and rarely allow for individual performance or reward. This kind of company in my experience becomes exponentially less efficient with each added employee, causing a gradual and steady ossification.
It's hard for a lot of start-ups to follow the kitchen model given our general approach to hiring and firing. Restaurants are far, far more ruthless in this area. If you are not carrying your weight you will be fired. Quickly.
Personally... I think we could learn from this.
It's Not About You
As a former boss once told me, "when you switch into your whites, you hang your personal issues in their place and leave them behind."
I've worked with alcoholics and drug addicts and people with real mental problems who were valuable and productive members of a kitchen crew. While their personal lives may have been horrible and fucked up beyond belief, they were able to leave all that shit behind and focus on the job.
This is where start-ups are lagging furthest behind kitchens. And I'm not confident that a straight port of the kitchen model in this area would be effective. Kitchens are far more ruthless and heartless than start-ups and I think that can work in a kitchen but would result in too-high turnover in a start-up. And given the value of talent in start-ups... that would be bad.
That said, however, I think we could get a lot more effective and efficient if we were to become a little more "It's always business - it's not personal" in our start-up behaviors. I personally think that requiring some basic professionalism and a lack of selfish entitlement would be really, really helpful.
Just Get the Next Ticket Out the Door
Cooks are better than just about anyone out there when it comes to focusing on getting shit done - and not getting distracted or panicked by the amount of work that is piling up. Good line cooks are simply executing their current tickets, getting the next out out the door, and are spending absolutely no time thinking about the rapidly growing pile of tickets yet to be done or the runners getting more anxious by the second. A good line cook knows how to go as fast as they can without fucking up - and how to never, ever go faster than that.
It's not just start-ups that could learn from this. All y'all need to learn from it!
To sum it up... if you're running a start-up, there are a handful of things that you could learn from line cooks... things that would dramatically improve your odds of success. Be a team, have each other's backs (but be ruthless with those who can't cut it), trust each other (and focus only on your stuff), don't dick about and don't overthink shit... and most of all... It's not about you.