A New Old Way to Get Right Things Done Right!

By Donald Officer

…we don’t just need strategies and systems [to escape the chaos in our lives]. We also suffer for the lack of guiding principles that account for all our human dimensions.
– Dan Charnas, Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind

Grateful leaders have two basic sets of responsibilities which they need to distinguish if they are not to become hopelessly entangled and sabotaged in their efforts. On the one hand there is the leadership role itself. Authentic leaders have to acknowledge the people they lead as persons and naturally as members of appreciated teams too. Grateful leaders learn to cultivate awareness of those objectives and watch for opportunities to make it all happen together. But there is another component of what successful leaders do that is just as important to the end result. That portion of responsibility is the sum of all the other things leaders must undertake; some can be delegated but all require focussed, timely and effective effort from leaders themselves.

If this work is not properly imagined, planned, chunked into doable sequences and only then executed, the leadership piece will also fail, sometimes in disastrous ways. Many people put so much emphasis on planning they believe they can smoothly segue into execution. Not so fast. The next stage is actually preparation, usually at least as important as planning. With practice, preparation might come easily, but don’t be fooled, practice is also part of a much bigger preparation package. We probably will never know for sure exactly what the triggering impulse is that causes a specific action or inaction to occur in most cases. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the “thin slicing” of experience leading to quick decisions in the moment which focussed intuition brings to bear in critical instants. Elsewhere he also writes of the 10,000 hours of focused practice it takes to achieve mastery in anything requiring a complex, refined skill set. Furthermore, no matter how well prepared we are for the right specific action in the moment, if we are not primed to physically begin, we won’t sail smoothly and may even fail to launch.
People must place confidence in more than themselves and the environment as it presents. What we need is a system for managing work. Beyond the simplest tasks, we require a way to break down or chunk routines, procedures, projects, and whole programs effectively regardless of scale or level of detail. Fortunately, such a general system exists courtesy of the culinary arts.

Yes, we owe a debt of gratitude to the great chefs and the French tradition of high-quality cuisine. That system is called “mise-en-place” which translates literally as “put in place.” In the context of the well-organized kitchen, it means “the preparation and assembly of ingredients, pans, utensils, and plates or serving pieces needed for a particular dish or service period.” Even this definition limits the full application of the phrase if we were obliged to stop there. The term quickly evolved to include the mindset, the systemic practice and philosophy underpinning the quite particular rules and the very broad professional conduct guidelines implicit in the phrase. Author Dan Charnas is a journalist, not a chef, but like the authors of Ikigai very much believes in the value of a particular way of life and work as reported in this book. Being a writer, Charnas was impressed by the noteworthy reporting of Michael Ruhlman, who embedded himself as a student at the Culinary Institute of America or CIA (not to be confused with the better known equally secretive organization sharing the same initials). At the CIA mise-en-place is the backbone of the curriculum. Out of Ruhlman’s experience came The Making of a Chef in 1997 to share quite a few techniques of the culinary arts without diminishing the overall mystique. In 2000, the late Anthony Bourdain chef turned reporter released his explosive memoir, Kitchen Confidential. Charnas admires Bourdain’s sharp perception “…an eye of reverence in a hurricane of irreverence.” Charnas was especially impressed by the quality of the content as well as the topics these pioneers in a new kind of food writing shared with their readers. Was there something about mis-en-place we could take away from the dinner table other than a full stomach? Dan Charnas believes so and this book is the proof of the pudding so to speak.

Restaurants and hospitality, in general, occupy unforgiving terrain. Mistakes are not overlooked by hungry patrons nor will they be by the food chain within an establishment’s management. Even the most compassionate chefs do not dare forget this reality. And to be fair the line cooks, and all the others who share this overheated realm with the ovens and hot grills must rise above this act, quit or be fired. The daily mis-en-place timeline is more than a lifeline, but it is certainly that. Is there gratitude shown by the senior chefs towards their well-defined teams of subordinates? You may have seen pots and plates and uncensored comments fly freely and mercilessly towards offending food workers who have messed up their mis-en-place on reality TV. That’s for the cameras. Real life chefs retain some human properties so of course there is more venting in the kitchen than that above the range hoods. However, the mise-en-place kitchen is first and forever a school devoted to the continuous improvement of the whole staff as they acquire the discipline of their craft. Sharp comments may serve as wake-up calls when the service is in jeopardy.

However, later during quiet spells, the same cook will be carefully shown by the same supervising chef, repeatedly if necessary but patiently without condescension, how to deal with a crisis (by slowing down to speed up) and still serve a proper well-timed meal. In quieter, even solitary workplaces the rest of us need something like a mise-en-place or meeze as it is called using the French pronunciation. In the years when I taught strategic thinking, the phrase that best describes the process always sounded to me like an oxymoron. Strangely, I was never asked to explain its wording: Strategic thinking is seeing the big picture in the moment. That was just as well. I knew what the sentence meant although it would have been pretty darn hard to explain exactly how to do that. The cook’s daily meeze demonstrates the complete cycle of the station process in sufficient detail to keep the end in view while anticipating where it might be challenged. This is strategic cooking. What does a daily meeze look like? In Work Clean we find simple forms taken from restaurants and schools which include columns for the following: The equipment list, for convenience there is a comprehensive checklist which forces the cook to consider the best tools or better alternatives bearing in mind that only the untrained do not appreciate the difference a pot, pan, bowl or spatula chosen will make in the process and quality of the service; the next column is the schedule normally with fixed times like starts, cleanups and checkouts preprinted and blank boxes to accommodate the variances in time each preparation demands; then follows the mise-en-place column, timeline or schedule of phases in the day relatively fixed in sequence for reasons involving labor and chemistry; the detailed steps or task breakdown to achieve the phases belong in the next column; and finally the fifth column is reserved for the foodstuffs themselves. Throughout, always clean up and put away as you go.

It might seem obvious to start your meeze with the checklist of equipment and the timeline as these are the most consistent elements and only partially flexible – there’s only so much time to spend and you can spot your equipment arranged about your station. Checking the menu should lead you to the refrigerator and shelves to pull or tag what you actually need before setup. And naturally the steps you record will depend on the overall structure of the meal as it unfolds in your timeline. From this chart, the cook constructs his day. In practice, it will be more iterative. If help will be needed try to anticipate it during preparation. Cooking stations are set up to minimize and group hand movements carefully and methodically. Maintain that order. Leaving the station is planned to be brief and designed to minimize inconvenience throughout the kitchen. Mastering the meeze is essential so the apprentice cook logs times, errors and useful process discoveries at least until the necessary competence and minimum supervision level is reached. Next phase? – shorten your completion time with each service repetition. Imagine the gratitude when you meet your target! How contagious might this positive, conscientious mindset become? It might seem the kitchen and the office have little in common. The cook’s day is not invaded by emails or sabotaged by staff meetings. The cook’s station and setup are constant. Time and location for the office worker are fluid, with conferences, away from meetings and intervening travel time. Kitchen work is craft-based presenting a predictably big portion of physicality; office work dishes out multiple contradictions stretches of tedium and unexpected deadlines in irregular order. Many are mentally challenging; tap a wide range of skills or require creative solutions.

In common, both worlds can be pressure cookers. Demanding clients and superiors are ever present. And despite its variability, the office is filled with continuously recurring tasks which could go much more smoothly and do have physical components. Desk layouts, properly stocked supply cabinets, optimum times to return calls or correspondence. Visible or conceptual templates would shrink delay and trouble if well thought out during regular preparation time. As do kitchens, offices run best with minimal supervision. Desktops, laptops, and smartphones need to be set up for calm and stress-free work, with everything organized for easy retrieval.
Today’s workplace moves at a hectic, disruptive, scarcely manageable pace much as it has in commercial kitchens for numberless decades. The meeze is a transferable system, with a practical philosophy adaptable to all manner of workplaces, teams, and organizations. Think of how new technologies could be integrated and managed in a meeze that accommodates robotics, AI and machine learning. Think about how dispirited, deskilled workers could regain a lost sense of craft by taking charge of their work. Think how autonomous, effective yet still respectfully connected everyone in shops big and small could become. Think of how revitalized acknowledgment starting with leaders achieving their own self-mastery sets the table for authentic appreciation and a truly grateful leadership throughout the organization.

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities