I’m not much of a TV person, but I have become a big fan of the show Kitchen Nightmares. If you haven’t seen the show, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay visits a struggling restaurant and attempts to determine the source of the problems and correct them. The show is somewhat formulaic: The food is usually terrible, the restaurant is in a state of disrepair, the owner or owners are in denial, and customers are treated as an inconvenience rather than a revenue stream.
In most shows, after several classically British outbursts (probably the most incidents of the term “bullocks” you’ll ever hear uttered on a mainstream U.S. network), teary eyes, and a redesigned menu, there is a happy ending and the restaurant is packed with smiling patrons. While the shows seem to follow a standardized plot line, and the U.S. version often ends happily as opposed to the original version, there are several parallels to IT departments that I’ve seen when experiencing “IT nightmares” that are illustrative.
In most cases, Chef Ramsay is summoned to the restaurant by a concerned spouse, staffer, or one of the owners. They usually recognize that something is going wrong, even if they cannot articulate the problem, or perceive everything is fine. In the case of a small business like a restaurant, the ultimate benchmark of success is revenue, and an empty till on a Friday night is a stark indicator of business not going well.
IT departments should look for a similar handful of metrics, geared toward the business results they’re delivering rather than technical measures like uptime. While these might be harder to sniff out than cash, monitor them closely and use them as an early warning sign that things are going poorly. Even if you feel everything is going well, there’s no shame in getting an outside opinion.
Chef Ramsay is essentially acting in a consulting role to the struggling businesses he visits, and my favorite aspect of this is that he always starts his intervention with observation. The worst consultants begin passing judgment the moment they arrive on the scene, usually based on their self-reported “decades” of experience. Chef Ramsay obviously has a great deal of experience, but without fail he’ll greet the staff, taste the food, and observe a dinner service before providing his feedback once he has observational data to support his conclusions.
The owners are usually mired too deeply in their business to make these impartial judgments, and a competent outsider whose recommendations are guided by observed behavior are the best way to begin change.
In many episodes, an overly complex or dated menu is completely abandoned. Aside from poorly prepared or tasteless food, many of the restaurants have a menu with literally hundreds of items, a recipe for confusion, and dozens of substandard dishes rather than a handful of excellent ones. Chef Ramsay trims the menu to a few dishes that are matched to the competence of the kitchen.
The obvious lesson for IT departments is to focus on a handful of offerings that can be done well and match those offerings to the competence of your department. You should not be offering multiyear strategic projects when the email system is always down, and there’s no shame in abandoning or outsourcing functions that are overly burdensome or don’t work with your “menu.”
Abandon your ego
Most episodes feature a teary-eyed moment or two on behalf of the owner or a loved one. Debt is destroying the family, or, worse yet, depression and substance abuse are ruining the life of a once-proud chef. The owner usually resists Chef Ramsay’s changes until hitting bottom and then becomes a new and invigorated person. Even if you feel you’re doing everything right, there’s no shame other than a bruised ego to getting some outside help and moving forward. Egos usually recover much more quickly than any other part of our body.