3 Lessons About Teams I Learned as a Short-Order Cook

3 Lessons About Teams I Learned as a Short-Order Cook



By Dr. James Eyring, Chief Operating Officer, Organisation Solutions

I paid my way through university by being a short-order cook at Denny’s, a US-based, diner-style restaurant chain. While I didn’t know it at the time, I learned a tremendous amount about teams working in a small, hot kitchen on extremely busy Saturdays or Sundays with two other cooks. I experienced first-hand what differentiates good and great team performance. From research and more than 30 years of experience as a leader and executive coach, I know what drives team performance. But, being a short-order cook taught me in ways that a corporate environment never will. Here are three of my lessons learned.


Reporting Relationships Don’t Matter:

Each cook has a set of responsibilities in an area of the kitchen. Delivering one hot meal can require each cook to prepare a portion of the meal and deliver it at the same time. Delivering multiple courses for many tables requires even more coordination. The kitchen team is highly dependent upon each other. One mistake can ruin your rhythm and result in poor customer service, reduced sales, and a very angry waitstaff.

Cooks operate as a team because they depend upon each other to deliver, not because they report to the same manager. Members of a kitchen team constantly shift depending upon who is working on a particular day, and they must come together seamlessly.

If you are a leader in a large company, this has two implications. First, your team may not be a team. If your direct reports don’t depend on each other to deliver work, you have a group of individuals that you should not force to act like a team. However, you can change the work they do to eventually require more dependency. Second, each of your direct reports is probably part of other teams. Focus on helping them be successful in multiple teams, not just your own team.


Task Processes are More Important than Team Building

When you need three people to work together to deliver some pancakes, bacon, and eggs for a single order, task processes become critical. These include knowing your responsibilities, how to change these if one of you has to step away for a while, how to monitor performance, how to coordinate work, and how to help each other when needed. You don’t need to know each other deeply or have gone through team building to help you perform. You need core skills, agreed processes, and great communication.

Research supports this. Improving task processes has more impact on team performance than does focusing on building group dynamics (but see my next point below). However, most of us have experienced a team bowling, karaoke, or cooking event. And most of us have had a team MBTI, DISC, or Belbin survey conducted. These events are fun, but years of research show they don’t have impact beyond that good feeling right after the event.


Relationship Processes Help Avoid Meltdowns

It is easy for a team in a kitchen to meltdown. A simple mistake and an angry retort can turn a high performing kitchen into a disaster. Cooks blame waitstaff, they yell at each other, people walk off the line, and customers suffer. If you have ever watched a Gordon Ramsay cooking show, you know what I mean.

Some personality factors predict this, but any team can be pushed over the edge if the circumstances are right. Great teams avoid these problems more frequently. They know how to manage conflict, build confidence in each other, and manage their frustrations as a team. And they feel safe in bringing issues up and resolving them quickly. Cooks aren’t trained on these processes. However, being a psychology major trapped in a small room with your co-workers for nine-hour shifts provides you with a lot of time to learn on-the-job. Teams in companies have the luxury of working on these capabilities in a more structured way.

Teams operate within their own context. Emergency room teams, cockpit crews, astronauts, military squads, and teams in large companies all have different demands and dynamics. Working remotely has different challenges than working in the same location, working globally has different challenges than working within the same culture. Understanding and responding to these differences is important.


However, no matter the setting, a few core factors differentiate good and great teams. Ask yourself these questions to see if you are getting the most out of your team:

  • Does my team rely upon each other to get work done? It not, don’t waste your time on team building until you re-design the team’s work so that they are interdependent
  • Does my team practice great task and relationship processes? If not, focus your future team building exercises in these areas. These are especially important for teams working remotely
  • Does everyone speak up? Do they admit mistakes and fallibility? If not, implement practices to build psychological safety. This is especially important for teams working remotely
  • Is my team fully aligned on how we operate within the team and with our stakeholders? We have been measuring Team Alignment for 15 years and find that highly aligned teams outperform and have greater commitment and engagement than poorly aligned teams


There is always more to learn about teams. Take a minute and drop us a note telling us what you have learned about teams.



Dr. James Eyring is the Chief Operating Officer of Organisation Solutions and leads the global consulting practice. In addition, he specialises in leadership and talent management and works with companies and executives to build capabilities they need to fuel future growth. As part of his role, he provides coaching to global and top regional leaders. Contact James




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