BLOG: 7 Lessons Architects can learn from Chefs

Two years ago, I started a professional cooking education out of interest in and my passion for cooking. During a year I took off one day a week to attend the lessons, and after that year I wanted to learn more.

During my Leave of Absence I went for ‘the real deal’.

So a year ago, I continued with the next level of the professional cooking education, but this time I wanted to do the real deal: With an internship in a professional kitchen. I took a Leave of Absence (sabbatical) from Accenture and worked at two restaurants: Le Jardin and De Zagerij, both in Utrecht. This ended up in being one of the most interesting years of my life in which I obtained a professional diploma for Skilled Cook and learned a lot about cooking in a professional kitchen and about how restaurants operate.

Architects and Chefs have more in common than you may think at first sight.

You may be surprised how much Architects and Chefs have in common when it comes to topics like ‘continuous’, ‘agile’ and ‘self managed teams’ – these are all part of the daily operations in the professional kitchen as well. But Chefs are ahead of the game over Architects: Although it’s not entirely clear when mankind started cooking, I don’t think we need to argue about the fact that we started cooking way before we started doing IT.

In this blog post I share with you the first 7 lessons that I learnt in the professional kitchen that would also work very well for architects.

1 Split your day

Let’s start with one of the most clear concepts that chefs use to organize their work day: Split it. In the professional kitchen, there is a clear distinction between preparing food components and running the production, called service. In the afternoon (say, till 5pm) the main focus in the kitchen is on preparing food components, also known as Mise En Place (MEP). There is a strict MEP plan that indicates what needs to be done in order to be prepared for the service in the evening.

During the evening, the kitchen is fully focussed on assembling and finishing the meals that have been ordered.

Splitting your day could also help architects become more effective. If you have all your (group) meetings in the morning, you can be productive in the afternoon and complete your to-do list without being interrupted by scheduled meetings.

2 Plan for tomorrow: make a to-do list

At the end of the day, the chef creates a so called MEP list: list of food components that need to be prepared the next day because they were sold during the evening. A chef can’t wait to plan the next day on the next day, as ingredients for the next day have to be ordered at night, so he has to plan ahead.

As an architect you can also do this, and make a quick start in the morning, because you already know what your day looks like. At the end of the day, have a look at your calendar: what meetings do you have, what activities do you have planned and do a final check on your inbox to see if there are any urgent additions. You are actually doing a 1 day sprint with an updated backlog every day.

3 There is no tomorrow

Okay – this may sound confusing: first I recommend you to plan for tomorrow, and now I say there is no tomorrow. There is no tomorrow refers to the fact that in a professional kitchen, you can’t postpone tasks to tomorrow. If a guest in a restaurant has ordered his meal, it should arrive the same evening, not only tomorrow. This may require a bit of flexibility by the chef and and kitchen team. Work a bit harder, or re-prioritize the activities.

For architects: deliver today what you promised to deliver today. Finish today what you had planned for today. Don’t start moving planned activities to tomorrow, because it may grow into a bad habit of postponing over and over again. And others are happy to hear from you on time, so they can also go ahead with their plans and activities.

4 Provide feedback / continuous (self) improvement

In the kitchen, you give and get instant feedback for improvements. You even work together on the spot on improving the preparation or presentation of the meal. This can be about quality (taste), appearance but also increasing speed. And you do a lot of self reflection. Many tasks are repetitive and time consuming, so you are constantly challenged to perform your tasks in a more efficient or qualitative better way.

As an architect, you also shouldn’t wait till the next department meeting of biweekly retrospective to provide feedback or suggest improvements. Do it as soon as possible. The quicker you make a positive impact with the team. And schedule 5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect what you could have done better. Or how you could approach the same activity differently the next time in order to become more efficient. Do you really need that daily meeting? Is there a process that could be more efficient? Since you’re doing this at the end of the day, you can immediately incorporate the next day and make your own life easier.

5 Be flexible and creative

In the kitchen, you constantly need to be flexible and creative. It can happen dat certain ingredients were not delivered or guests spontaneously indicate their dietary restrictions. This has an impact on your MEP list and they way you assemble your meals during service. A good chef plans for the unplanned changes, and can easily create a tasty dinner made of the available components that meet the guests’ requirements. But you also need to be flexible if you run out of some components of your meals during the evening. And all of these aren’t excuses to postpone: guests won’t wait for tomorrow to get their meal served.

Architects should also be able to deal with changing requirements and should be knowledgeable about what they have on stock in their repository of artefacts. And make use of each other’s knowledge, expertise and skills so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and can efficiently create solutions and be adaptive in case there are changes.

Agile is in a chef’s DNA

After reading these first 5 lessons, do you recognize that in the professional kitchen, agile is in a chef’s DNA? They work with two backlogs: the first is the MEP-list for the day activities. This one is created on a daily basis based on what was sold during the day. The second is what the guests actually order: this is a dynamic list as orders keep coming all evening for various dishes and dish types, including high priority orders. The daily routine is basically a one day sprint cycle, with continuous feedback (retrospectives).

As an architect, prepare to be more adaptive in the future as well. Eventually sprints may become as short as one day. Sprint backlogs may be changed at any time. And for architects, using multiple backlogs may be useful if you work with a bimodal approach. Bring structure in your day and split e.g. in group meetings vs working on actions, or long term initiatives vs project support.

The final 2 tips of this first 7 Lessons Architects can learn from Chefs blog concern communication:

6 Confirm

In the kitchen it is important that you confirm what you are doing, or when you’re not able to do something. If you get an order, you confirm with ‘Bon Chef!’ – Now the chef knows that you heard the request for 4 starters and that you’re working on it. And this is also the moment to inform the chef in case you need more time for one reason or another. And if you are going out for a break – you inform the chef and the team, so nobody is wondering ‘where has he gone to?’.

This also applies to architects: If you get a question or a request, be so kind to respond or inform the requester how much time you will need to sort things out. And if you’re not available for a while, put on your out-of-office and make sure that people can easily contact somebody else – this will prevent you from becoming the bottle neck.

7 Provide clear instructions/messages

In the kitchen you quickly discover that clear instructions are essential. If you explain how to prepare a dish, many things can easily be misinterpreted. For instance: Cut an apple in two pieces, and cut each piece in 4 pieces. What would the result look like? If you don’t know what the expected end result is, you could either cut it in 8 wedges or in 8 corners, assuming you should get 8 identical pieces.

Also architects should clearly explain what they are working on, taking into account who their audience is. This may vary from very technically detailed, or high-level management. Make sure your message is clear, understandable and unambiguous. And don’t assume that your audience always knows what your goal is. Tell them, so they know what you’re up to.

If you want to know more about what architects can learn from chefs, you can attend the presentation “What Architects can learn from Chefs” at the Landelijk Architectuur Congres on November 15th and 16th 2018 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. This session is scheduled on Friday November 16th at 10:45.

You can also read more on this topic in the blogs 7 More lessons Architects can learn from Chefs (expected: October 1st, 2018) and 3 Lessons Chefs can learn from Architects (expected: November 1st, 2018) on LinkedIn.

Bas van Hengstum is Technology Architect at Accenture, member of the LAC program committee and member of the NAF Board. 

Overzicht nieuws