Polishing the Stagecoach: Why Foodservice Training Can Suck
by Jim Sullivan
I recently had lunch with Tim Kirkland, the best-selling author of The Renegade Server. If you haven’t read the book—a 21st Century treatise on how to motivate, inspire and direct iPod Generation waitstaff to serve better and sell more—I highly recommend it.
Our conversation centered not on servers, but on the current state of—and frustrating lack of progress in—foodservice training. We wondered why there’s been so much progress in almost every area of operations while we still educate via the three-ring binder…
In the last decade the restaurant business has steadfastly transformed into the business of restaurants. We’ve made vast strides in key operational areas like marketing, design, throughput, menus, back office systems, and even hiring. Our traditionally innovation-phobic industry has even come to embrace technology as a performance enabler instead of enslaver; how cool is that? Yet despite all this system-wide progress, training programs missed the progress train and seem steadfastly rooted in the past.
Mr. Kirkland has a favorite analogy for foodservice training programs today that rely solely on training manuals: an 1860s stagecoach. “A stagecoach is primitive in its design and purpose but has functionality, gets passengers from here to there and can be driven by almost anyone,” Tim says. “You’ve got your Drivers-Trainers on top, passenger-trainees below, and while it’s bumpy and slow-going most of the way, it’ll eventually get you where you need to go. Much the same could be said for the bulk of most manual-driven foodservice training today.” He has a good point. The Training Manual and its companion three-ring binder–the tool and template of choice for foodservice trainers for the last sixty years—may indeed be the stagecoach of the foodservice industry.
In case you’ve never considered it, here’s a brief synopsis of how 99% of all training manuals are created and developed in restaurants:
- Somebody opens an independent restaurant. Shortly before or after they open, a server, bartender or manager who’s “a good writer” is asked by the owners to write a customer service manual. The chef or cooks write down the recipes, individual job descriptions are collected, a customer manifest and mission statement is defined, and eventually a first draft is written by the server for cheap. The owners review the draft and add their two cents to the copy. Lawyers are summoned, the content is dutifully reviewed and revised in great by-the-hour detail and the front-end content gets heavily weighted with CYA-content and the occasional “whereas” and “thereupon” thrown in for heft. The restaurant logo is affixed to the cover page, the manual is photocopied and it gets handed out.
- Two years later a new server at the company with an English degree creates a revised second edition of the manual, at minimum wage.
- Three years later the company grows bigger and begins franchising, and a franchise advisory board makes revisions and additions to the second edition.
- Eventually an agency—the same one that does your advertising—proposes improving the layout/design/artwork on the third edition and a staff copyrighter experienced in ad creation touches up the content.
- Naturally the legal team reviews each iteration in detail and adds both more liability language and a few more well-placed disclaimers to the content.
- You eventually hire a director of training who puts the key points of the manual on Power Point slides to share with new managers and franchisees.
- Your IT director puts that Power Point deck on your Intranet with audio narration and now declares you’re providing e-learning.
- Every year you update the manual/Power Point/job aid with new menu items, policies or procedures. And more legal stuff.
And so it goes and goes, and that’s why in the long run, 99% of all training manuals end up being written by committee, many of whom were attorneys and none of whom are Charles Dickens.
When companies merely revise manuals every year with graphics or layout improvements instead of adapting and applying new learner-centric training concepts and technology, Kirkland calls it merely “polishing the stagecoach.” Kind of like putting radial tires and a rearview mirror on your stagecoach. It may look nicer, but it’s still a 19th Century means of conveyance pulled by horses in a turbo BMW world.
The thing is, training today should be learner-centric, not content-centric. We’re all drowning in information and starving for knowledge. Shouldn’t our materials be based on how adults absorb, retain and use content instead of merely telling them what you think they need to know? You wouldn’t let a dishwasher design your building or an architect design your menu, so why leave training content and design to people who did the job well but have no clue how adult learners actually absorb and retain learning today? The world of tell-show-do-review is linear and linear training is dead.
Maybe it’s time to invest in bona fide adult learning experts to review and revise your training materials instead of just your lawyers and franchisees. And while I’ve got nothing against stagecoaches or manuals, the fact is that neither one gets me where I need to go as a passenger or learner in the 21st Century.
To succeed in the next five years you must out-teach the competition.
Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at management conferences worldwide. You can get his free leadership enewsletter and product catalog here at www.sullivision.com.
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