What Restaurant Kitchen Teach Us about Hierarchy and Agility

As someone who loves food – who doesn’t, right – I always enjoy watching any kind of TV shows related to food, from documentaries to cooking competition show. In fact when I have time (and willingness) I can spend hours in the kitchen during weekend to try and experiment with some recipes and cook for family. Normally my wife would enjoys it but the kids not so much 😀
This passion to food makes me quite familiar with the Brigade de Cuisine or commonly called as Kitchen Hierarchy in English.

So what is this Kitchen Hierarchy, anyway?

It was first introduced by Auguste Escoffier to maximize the efficiency in his restaurant’s kitchen. He organized the kitchen with a strict hierarchy of authority, responsibility and function. Without giving too much details – since this is not an article about kitchen anyway – and depending on the size/scale of the kitchen, the roles in the professional kitchen are:

  • Executive Chef
    Sits at the very top of the hierarchy, only large restaurant have it and normally the role is more on managerial overseeing multiple restaurants.
  • Chef de Cuisine (Head Chef)
    The Head Chef generally controls the whole kitchen, for example: they manage kitchen staff, controls kitchen costs, liaises with suppliers, and creates the menus.
  • Sous Chef (Deputy Chef)
    The sous chef shares a lot of the same responsibilities as the head chef, but tend to be more hands on and actively involved in the day-to-day running of the kitchen
  • Chef de Partie (Station Chef)
    This is where it becomes interesting. Chef de Partie is a vital part of the brigade system, but it’s split into many different roles. There is more than one chef de partie and each one is responsible for a different section of the kitchen. This makes kitchen operations much more productive and helps to coordinate large quantities of meals at busy times. Depending on the restaurant, the roles can be divided to Sauce Chef, Roast Chef, Pastry Chef, and so on.
  • And few other roles that helping in the kitchen

As you can see, every single person has their own role and function in this hierarchy. But yeah, you read it right, hierarchy. There is a hierarchy in this system and normally you don’t put the word hierarchy and agility in a sentence. We often read that agile is about self-organizing team, flat structure, etc etc, you name it. But wait, let’s compare between scrum values and empiricism pillars with how the professional kitchen works.

Five Scrum Values

Let’s first start with the scrum values.

  • Courage
    A professional kitchen brigade for sure has a courage to take on challenges, experimenting with recipes and food source, to always improve the products and the menu.
  • Focus
    Everyone focus with their work, especially chef de partie they are focusing only with their own station to ensure they will deliver and not to delay their teammates.
  • Commitment
    The commitment is obvious, to deliver perfect dish on the plate, and everyone is doing their part to achieve it.
  • Respect
    They respect for each other and not interfering other team member’s work
  • Openness
    With everybody working in a relatively small area close to each other (including the head chef), the transparency of the works are very much exist. In some restaurants, they build an open kitchen concept which really boost the openness.

Now we look at the 3 pillars of empiricism

  • Transparency
    The same as the openness value. Transparency is obvious in the kitchen, nothing to hide.
  • Inspection
    The head chef will always ensure that a quality dish put on the plate and delivered to the customer. Inspection is on all stages, for example: to make sure the protein is not over/undercooked, sauce taste is perfect, etc.
  • Adaptation
    One of the purpose of escoffier’s method is to bring standardization and predictability so they can deliver the plate with ease. But sometimes things can go south and in this case adaptation and flexibility is needed. For example: you can run out of the time and your meat has not grilled long enough. A good kitchen team can decide to d plan B to pull it out from the oven and deep-fry it. Other example is when a chef de partie as done with their own station, they normally help the other station to make sure it is delivered on time.

To add to the above, many other things in the kitchen that are align with agile and lean concept. Just to give you few examples:

  • The kitchen is normally arranged in a specific layout so they can work independently, ore efficiently, and not disturbing the other station.
  • They do mise en place – a French term for having all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, grated, etc. before you start cooking. Pans are prepared. Mixing bowls, tools and equipment set out. It is a technique chefs use to assemble meals so quickly and effortlessly.
  • Most of the things are time-boxed. The team are given fixed and limited time to deliver their part.
  • Etc.

Now you see that the professional kitchen is more agile than we thought. In fact, they really are Agile. The lesson we can take here is that hierarchy doesn’t break agility. Sometimes you do need hierarchy to put some disciplines and consistencies in order to promote agility. This is where agile leadership is needed to setup the groundwork of agility and to guide them to maturity. A critical responsibility of an Agile leader is to create an environment where agility is supported and to help remove impediments to delivering “done” products.

Self-organizing team doesn’t mean that the team is allowed to do anything they want/need in order to deliver result. Organizational standards and policies, as well as the maturity level of the team, will put guard-rails on what a team is allowed to do. More mature teams may be given more authority than less mature teams, but even for the most mature teams, every organization has some rules that everyone must follow.

Agile is not about ritual, it’s about mindset. Transformation to agile is transforming mindset, and to change a mindset I personally believe that it must be from the top, and a hierarchy is needed to roll it down below and to make it a culture.

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