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Making Failure a Positive

I’ve been reflecting upon a conversation I had with the chef at a new restaurant of a recent client. There were some inexperienced staff members who held important positions and this chef was ultimately responsible for training them. He preferred just to do the job himself rather than deal with the added stress and potential mistakes of letting the inexperienced person go through the live exercise of running service—which comes with all sorts of potential risks if something goes wrong. I let this chef know that you’ve got to let this person fail so they understand how they need to get better and also build up the confidence to actually take the reigns of the operation. A week or so later the chef let me know how eye opening the idea of letting this person fail was, so I’ve been thinking more and more about that. Obviously, I’m not the first person to say it, and though I don’t know if that was ever said directly to me, it was certainly a summary of knowledge and lessons I’ve learned from my own mentors and other respected colleagues.

The biggest risk and fear of letting someone fail are the consequences: lost account, angry customer, poor product quality. There is a solution, which in the long run ties into honesty and management training. There is going to be loss (expected failure) in all business industries, excess fabric at a mill, food trim waste at a restaurant, imperfect and unusable microchips at Intel, and this has to be factored in at all levels! But if we can accept failure at a human level in the hospitality industry, you can more honestly work to create better experiences and a more positive environment for your guests and your team.

In nearly any industry the following scenario could apply: Let’s say you’ve got a less experienced manager and you trust them to close the business alone for the first time. You arrive the following morning to open and you see the safe was left unlocked. It would be easy to say to yourself, this is why I can’t trust him to be alone and responsible for the business. But you’ve already invested time and effort in training and invariably you can’t cover every single potential issue or piece of knowledge it takes to become an independent manager. Some of that comes with time and experience. You need to reflect on mistakes you’ve made and wonder if you’ve done something similar and realize we can’t be hypocritical, even for the sake of teaching a lesson.

This becomes a teachable moment where the lesson takes care of itself. Nothing was stolen, no one was hurt and you have a new manager with whom you need to maximize their potential. So the situation must be addressed fairly and with honesty. You need to let this manager know when mistakes are made they can be honest with you so you can work to diffuse any negative ramifications. Now if the mistake happens again, then a third time, this warrants more serious action as it becomes clear this manager is not putting in the effort to do their job properly or perhaps is proven to be incapable of handling more responsibility.

Within a restaurant a new scenario could involve a server who makes a mistake with a guest’s order. Let’s say the server forgets one guest’s order at a table of four. Three entrees come out and one person is left with nothing. This sort of thing happens and falls within the same category of industry loss and mistake mentioned above. The question is how is it resolved? One path is the server attempts to sweep it under the rug, rings in the guest’s forgotten entree, apologizes to the guest and then tries to avoid this issue with the table and manager.

In a busy restaurant with poor communication, the server could quite easily get away with the corrected dish coming through and no one questioning it. But we should never even get there. A more ideal path is: the server tells the manager and you work as a team with the kitchen to get the forgotten dish out as soon as possible while addressing the issue with the table and do whatever it takes to keep the guest happy. Perhaps you top off some extra wine, offer to send a dessert, comp the forgotten dish or even re-fire all of the dishes. The point is with some honesty and effort this “fail” turns into a situation where the guest is impressed and genuinely pleased, even ecstatic that effort was put in to correct the mistake. Most human beings will understand mistakes happen and just appreciate someone trying to do the right thing to resolve it. It’s when it’s swept under the rug and the guest feels doubly neglected that real issues arise.

There are many variables at play here, but as mentioned earlier, this all ties into creating a work environment where people are unafraid to communicate errors or questions of how to do something properly. This doesn’t mean you can’t be firm with staff, but you must be fair. People need to be able to make mistakes and given the chance to learn from them. This is not exclusive of consequences. Even in the high pressure world of fine dining you can demand perfection, while creating a culture of education and support to bring the best out in your staff. Those working for you will be more likely to listen and work at their best when they know you have their back and support in a challenging situation.

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