Thought Leaders

Under Your Nose: Productivity, Customer Service And Teamwork


Imagine you’re sitting at a table in a restaurant with your high-priced management consultant talking about improving team dynamics. Unnoticed by you is a small team working feverishly responding to your every need.

Food lands on your table for your entire group, all at the same time, and all of it hot. The well-orchestrated ballet is the definition of effective teamwork.

This made me wonder; is there something here right under our nose?  Why not conduct interviews at a few restaurants; a mom and pop, a chain, and a fast food, and find out what they have in common and report back to you.

What do Restaurants Have in Common?

As it turns out, restaurants have quite a lot in common.  This service sector has innate characteristics that make it click – so what are they?

The Environment:

First of all “It’s do or die.” Everyone from the dishwasher to the owner knows and feels this. More than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments big and small in the US alone closed in 2020 with many more on the brink. This fact creates a sense of urgency in the back of everyone’s mind.

Another driver is high expectations. When you sit down you expect your table clean and set and quickly handed a menu. You expect the server to survey the area like a hawk to refill your coffee. You even compensate to To Insure Promptness (TIP).

The key characteristic is the complete customer focus with direct customer contact. The whole organization gets immediate feedback. The customer can thank you and come back or grumbling on the way out taking future sales and your reputation with them.

The customer drives everything and everyone even those without direct contact. Can you imagine a better advocate in the kitchen than the sever who is face to face with the customer?

Team Work:

I asked a waitress at a small restaurant what is the key to running so smoothly and she blurted out “Team Work” with gusto; It was a heartfelt reflex response.

The teams themselves are small. Small restaurants have small teams,  large restaurants have several (you guessed it) small teams. A foxhole mentality within the teams as people need to work at a feverish pace. As for diversity; no one cares if you are 10 feet tall and purple with polka dots, just get that salad to table 3.  A manager at a fast-food restaurant said, she loves to see what she called “Bump and Slide” as the team gets into a groove.


Given there are 1 million-plus restaurants and 15 million-plus employees in the US alone you would expect a great deal of organizational diversity, but in general, they have similar characters. Management sets the tone and rules. There is a strong battlefield general type for standards enforcement. The head chef is the commander of his/her domain. but the terminus end of the organization is where the magic happens. Once the starting pistol goes off the teams are pretty autonomous. They do the work and solve the problems. They call the audibles; send it back to the kitchen, comp this drink, and so on. Very agile, no stakeholders meetings required.


A clear steady customer vision of their establishment is sacrosanct to the ownership. From the menu selection to the employee uniforms a positive, consistent image is a source of pride and motivation. My favorite local restaurant clearly maintains a down-home image. They have a non-pretentious menu, they are super friendly and open at 5 AM for breakfast during hunting season. They have an identity.

Applying the Lessons:

Counting our TIPs:

At this point you may be thinking “short of changing my business model to serving lobster rolls, I can’t apply these practices.”  I say “If you see demonstrable results, take a harder look at the takeout menu for tips.”


What from the restaurant model is more impactful than getting the team closer to the client? This will take effort. Most corporate environments don’t provide this opportunity or so it seems.  Remember the chef doesn’t have direct customer contact, but they interact with the next best thing.

No law says you can’t set up meetings with your client-facing teams such as customer service or sales or even the customer satisfaction survey team. They would love to give you direct customer feedback with real names and situations that will resonate with your team.

If you are not lucky enough to have a direct relationship with a strategic client try to establish one and don’t be afraid to invite your team. It may just stroke your customer’s ego at the same time.

High Standards and Sense of Urgency:

Are there opportunities to more fully communicate how your project relates to a larger picture? What projects are dependent on, and what is the impact of being early or late?

Ask yourself: Do you remember being on one of “those projects” the ones you saw the sun come up more than once? Those challenges fostered pride and teamwork. I bet you still keep in touch with the friends you made in the foxhole.


You’re already doing a great job on your team’s reputation and persona, but consider small things like nicknames that personifies your team’s strengths.  Is second level support – Allison’s Ambulance Squad? Is the Actuarial Team the Magnificent 7?  This may not be your cup of tea, but the dessert menu is always optional.

The Takeaway:

As an excellent manager, you instinctively look for best practices from other teams and even competitors. Now perhaps you will be more inclined to find tips from sources that are right under your nose.

Ralph Sacco, PMP now retired after spending decades having a blast implementing large-scale solutions for countless clients while working for GE Information Services, PWC, and IBM.



Ralph Sacco
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