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Posted: May 24, 2013

A recipe for efficiency

Add a pinch of change to the mix

Laura Cook Newman

At 13, I got my first real job.  Sure, I was probably underage; but back then, nobody seemed to care. 

I was a self-described “Head Wrapper” at a quaint bakery café near my childhood home. My sole responsibility was to place freshly sliced (and sometimes still warm) banana bread into food service style “baggies,” then seal them with a logo label indicating the flavor.

It didn’t take long to become proficient at this task, buzzing along at a steady tempo.  Business was good – so good that by midsummer, the demand for banana bread had doubled. 

In August, the owner introduced me to my…replacement: The Cryovac 8600.  This stainless steel workhorse precisely vacuum-sealed plastic film around each slice of bread at an astonishing pace.

Since I was a lowly teenager lacking both a) life insurance and b) hand-eye coordination, I was informed that only my boss would operate the expensive equipment.  “Okay,” I said with a crestfallen nod, comprehending that this sweet, albeit illegal, $5/hour cash gig was coming to a premature end. 

Much to my surprise, he handed me a roll of those same stickers and pointed to the dismount end of “The Beast”.  Relieved, I took my assigned position and unlike Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory, kept up with the conveyor’s assault.  I don’t know if it was a promotion, but I was now “Lead Labeler”.  

What I didn’t know then was that this type of radical change for an established business was somewhat of an anomaly. The antiquated hand-wrapping system wasn’t state-of-the-art, but it worked just fine. “If it ain’t broke…” and all.

For a mom-and-pop café west of Boston, this was a progressive growth strategy, and it shaped my philosophy on embracing change.  Later in my career, I’d inevitably learn about people’s aversion to change. 

Since my entry into the workforce, I’ve reported to many a first day of work, in a variety of industries, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Call it training, orientation, or what is usually is: baptism by fire. Regardless, I was a human ShamWow – eager to absorb all the knowledge splashed my way.

Getting shown the ropes those first days, I tend to notice a dozen procedures that strike me as odd. I chalk it up to my life-long character flaw of questioning authority rather than being any kind of efficiency expert. I can’t help but ask, “What if you moved that trash can between your station and the fry station so that you can both use it without walking halfway across the kitchen?” 

“Huh,” my hair-netted trainer huffs, pondering the absurdity of my question for a moment.  “'Cuz we’ve always done it this way.” 

Discussion over. Next lesson: how to make a BLT in 28 easy steps. 

Like the stern 'n sassy female chef in Ratatouille, I’m tempted to push him aside and show him how simpler life would be if he just moved the toaster to the left of the station.  At the risk of ruining any chance of camaraderie with my new coworker, I withhold my other “Heloise Helpful Hints.” 

The inefficiency traps are not solely reserved for the food service industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re flipping flapjacks at IHOP or collating copies at Dunder Mifflin – there’s probably a way to do any job faster and better. 

Politicians call inefficiencies “red tape.” Traffic reporters name it “gridlock.”  Corporations know it as the “grind.” As for chefs and soldiers, it’s one big “CF” (hint: the “C” is for Cluster). Whatever you want to call it, it’s all those hurdles that slow down an otherwise simple process.

So why don’t we streamline our efforts? In all likelihood, we’ve become inured to the inefficiencies and suspicious of change. In our homes, rearranging furniture to create better feng shui sounds more like a scam cooked up by Martha Stewart’s long-lost Chinese cousin than a legitimately helpful use of space. Or organizing your office for better “desk ergonomics” sounds more like sales pitch from Herman Miller himself than a recipe for a happier, more productive admin. 

Lo and behold, I get accustomed to the toaster being on the right (aka the wrong) side.  One day, a new recruit arrives, and I’m tasked with schooling him on BLT 101.  “What if you moved the toaster to the left of the station?” he offers.  “Well,” I say, a little peeved at this whippersnapper’s audacity, “'cuz we’ve always done it this way!”

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

Love your chirpy, quirky style. Yes, efficiency is important in all aspects of life except maybe love. By Diane Kraft on 2013 05 29
All kidding aside Laura, your recent article was spot on. Efficiency is the way to go. In retrospect, classes in organization and efficiency would have served me better than algebra and history. ( QRG +XYZ = RGK...Say what? and who cares what King Henry the 8th's third wife was? Poor thing, I think she was beheaded). By Pamsclams on 2013 05 28
Edwards Deming was one of the early organizational specialists. He advocated lookiing at new ways to improve processes - to the point of knocking a hole in a wall to facilitate assembly at one particular plant. I think it's always good to be reminded that we can improve efficiency- and thereby, outcome. Love your chatty style, Chef L. By Andi Pearson on 2013 05 28
Darn it! I just sent you a 21 step recipe for a fast slapdash BLT but when I tried to submit my whole clever 900 word essay it was rejected. OK I get it. Too much blahh blahh blahh isn't efficient enough. Well, that's the way I've always done it. And that's the way I'm going to keep doing it! If I choose to wrestle my bra on and brush my teeth at the same time you efficiency experts can laugh all you want. By Pamsclams on 2013 05 26
The best "gift" I ever received was when I moved into my first place and my BFF (a fellow Chef) came over and unpacked my kitchen for me. Then he gave me the "tour" and explained the rationale why and where everything was placed. Efficiency at its finest! Even if underage kids can't "officially" work, they can get pretty creative and resourceful finding ways to earn some cash and be useful. I've got a lawn to mow and kids to babysit if your daughter is available? By Chef Laura on 2013 05 25
Move the toaster! Very well written. By Pater Familias on 2013 05 25
Well written. By David on 2013 05 24
Great article! Fresh eyes and perspective make the difference. And I can make that BLT in 14 steps. You have a faithful reader. By Chef DJ Nagle on 2013 05 24
It often takes a fresh eye to realize the potential of simplicity. By Ta Tee on 2013 05 24
When I worked for Applebee's this was so very important. Efficient movements create new results sometimes but not always. By Doug Miller on 2013 05 24
Life is Change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely. By The Captain on 2013 05 24
Your article both pleases me and makes me sad. My 1st job was a newspaper delivery boy at 12. It was great, my own money, I was a stud. I still work in the newspaper industry but there is no way we can/would hire a 12 year old to deliver papers. Now I have a 14 year old at home this summer and she is board to death as she is too young to get a job (15 is the magic number in some cases). I wonder if we are helping our society or hurting it with some of our protections.... By I remember my 1st job on 2013 05 24
Laura, as a student of Industrial Management I would have been having sleepless nights about these small things. Galbreath and his "Cheaper by the dozen" did time and motion studies many years ago and Even Tennessee Ernie Ford had hit song "16 Tons" about the efficiencies of everyday work. Keep after the efficiencies---they always make work flow better, make happier workers who really understand their efficient movements. By Bill Burd on 2013 05 24
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