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Restaurant Checklists are like Condoms

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Restaurant checklists are like condoms; nobody wants to use them, but they work.

I recently read the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, and he articulated perfectly everything that we have been preaching here at OpsAnalitica and so much more.  Please enjoy some paraphrased quotes from the Checklist Manifesto.

1. Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And, with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields—from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

2. In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily over-looked under the strain of more pressing events.

3. Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

4.  Good checklists, on the other hand are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

5.  One essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems—on assemblages of people or technologies or both—and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.

6.  But now the problem we face is ineptitude, or maybe it’s “eptitude”—making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.

7.  Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

8.  They supply a set of checks to ensure the stupid but critical stuff is not overlooked, and they supply another set of checks to ensure people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictabilities the best they know how.

9.  Failures of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort.  But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.

A lot of these quotes were written in the context of medical practice as Atul Gawande is a surgeon in Boston.  As you read them, it is so easy to apply them to restaurant management.

Quote #1 could be applied to how much more complicated it is to manage a restaurant today than it was 50 years ago.  Restaurant managers today have so many more systems and people to manage than they did even ten years ago.  I managed at a high volume restaurant, and we ran 20 to 30 front of the house staff per shift on our busy nights, and that restaurant was doing $120K a week plus. There is complexity from the sheer volume that some restaurants can generate.

Quote #2  sounds like what happens to a restaurant manager who is trying to get ready to open a restaurant and then has a major equipment or system failure to solve. They have to focus on getting a solution implemented before they open their doors and they could get so focused on solving the issue they miss other vital activities needed for running a safe restaurant.  A manager flight plan is crucial for these moments.

Quote #3 refers to all or none processes.  Most critical safety violations are all or none processes.  Meaning it is great that you have sanitizer buckets in all of your stations, but if you didn’t use test strips to ensure that the concentration is correct, then you might as well have not even bothered.

Quote #4 is tough for the restaurant industry because we need to have detailed checklists, in the case of a line check, you need to taste every item and report that it is good or temp every pan.  Because we use our checklists for CYA documentation purposes, ours will probably be a little longer.  That is not to say that a manager flight plan or pre-shift meeting checklist cannot be more high level.

Quote #5 speaks directly to all of the technology flowing into restaurants. Gone are the days of the cash register, ticket pad, and wheel.  A modern restaurant may have any or all of the following systems: POS, Inventory, Checklist, Take-out and Delivery System, Social Media, Website, Scheduling, Pagers, and potentially Table Tablets.  You have to manage all of those systems while serving food to people and everything that it takes to do that.

Quote #6 our restaurant managers today are so much better trained and more equipped to run restaurants than their predecessors.  This increase in skill is because of the excellent training that chains provide to their managers, the amount of certificate and degree programs, and the support and training that is available throughout the industry to help teach restaurant managers.  Once again it’s not the breadth of knowledge that is important so much as that it is applied consistently and correctly.  It doesn’t matter that you know that the dishwasher rinse water needs to be 180F if you don’t check that it is at 180.

Quote #7 have you ever stood in the kitchen and been like “have I done that already?”  I have horrible short term memory. I used to run the omelet bar at a country club Sunday buffet in college.  If you ordered an omelet from me I would ask you 4 to 5 times what you ordered.  The fact is that running a restaurant is very systematized and you conduct the same tasks every day.  If you open 3 or 4 days in a row you will be hard pressed to remember if you checked the bathrooms today already or was that yesterday.  The days can run together.  Following a checklist every day and checking off each task as it is completed provides written verification of what you have done and reminds you what tasks are most important.

Quote #8 speaks to using checklists to remind us to check the critical stuff but you can also have checks in there to remind your managers to stop and check-in with other members of the team.  Ex:  Get with the kitchen manager and confirm 86’d items.

Quote #9 sounds like what Chipotle is going through right now or how the public will treat your restaurant and you brand when you screw up on something that you should have known better.  Look at Chipotle today or Jack in the Box from the 90’s, customers expect us not to get them sick or harm them.  They don’t easily forgive those kinds of mess ups.  It is a testament to Chipotle’s brand equity that they are weathering this issue so well.

Quote #9 also, in my opinion, speaks to the need to utilize a digital checklist app, like OpsAnalitica, to conduct and record all of your checklists.  When using our app to conduct your checklists, you get accountability management and effortless documentation built in.  As restaurant managers, it is imperative that you can see what is happening your restaurants.  With today’s technology customers expect that corporate management knows exactly what is happening in every location every day.  We in the industry know that that level of visibility is not common in corporate and even less so in franchise systems.

Customers don’t distinguish from franchisee run or corporate restaurants.  They make their purchasing decision by the brand and the brand promise that they see in marketing.  If one of your locations screws up and gets someone sick, your entire chain will pay the price in reduced sales and lost brand equity.  Having visibility into daily operations and systems in place to follow-up on issues are imperative.

In conclusion: the answers to better, safer and more profitable restaurants are checklists. Checklists when created thoughtfully, used consistently, and are followed-up on, provide the structure to guide our managers through the important tasks of their day.  Checklists drive consistency and ensure that the little details don’t fall through the cracks.

I would like to give you our list of standard checklists that restaurant managers should be using:

  • Refrigeration Temp Log – Opening and Closing of Restaurant
  • Manager Flight Plan – These are the key tasks that a manager needs to get done each shift at the opening of the restaurant and before service periods.
    • This checklist is massively important because a lot of these items are prone to be missed when fires erupt and managers lose focus.
  • SMART Pre-Shift:  This is our proprietary checklist for preshifts, it includes sections on:
    • Sanitation:  sanitizer buckets, dishwashers, cross contamination
    • Management Responsibilities:  key manager flight plan activities that need to be completed before guests enter the building
    • Accountability:  FIFO, Portion Control, Line Check
    • Readiness:  Entry, Server Stations, Bathrooms, Dining Room
    • Temperatures:  this is a hold and cold hold temperature log
    • If you would like to watch our pre-recorded webinar about our SMART Pre-Shift Checklists, click here.
  • Hold and Cold Temperature Logs:  this is the temp log that you do after you start service, ensuring that all refrigeration and hot hold items are holding temp
  • Line Check:  temperatures, portion scoops, taste items, labels
  • Pre-shift Meeting:  Stations, Tip of the Day, Specials, 86 items
  • Bathroom cleanliness: please, please, please don’t have a piece of paper on the wall in your bathroom.
  • Staff Appearance Checklist:  check uniforms and appearance of staff, this is a great time to find out if everyone on the team is feeling healthy.

Here are some non-standard, not every day, checklists and inspections you should be conducting:

  • Fire extinguishers and fire suppression system
  • Annual location review: look at the state of your location, traffic flow, demographics, if in a mall or shopping center the health of the overall location.
  • Outside of building including parking lot
  • Full location inspection
  • Ceiling tiles and decor:  ripped booths and stained ceiling tiles are like smells after a while you don’t notice them anymore.
  • Equipment maintenance checklists:  make or utilize checklists for common equipment maintenance.

Click here if you would like us to email a pdf of our list of checklists right to your inbox.  If you would like help writing your checklists, OpsAnalitica offers consulting services just reach out to us on our support page.

If you would like to get a copy of the Checklist Manifesto, it will change how you look at and manage your restaurants. Here is a link to purchase the book through Amazon.com.

As always if you think I’m missing something or I’m way off then please leave a comment and let me know. I’m happy to update these blogs with better information at any time.

Written by

I've been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. I have a BSBA from University of Denver Hotel Restaurant school and an MBA from the same. When I wasn't working in restaurants I was either doing stand-up comedy, for 10 years, or large enterprise software consulting. I'm currently the Managing Director of OpsAnalitica and our Inspector platform was originally conceived when I worked for one of the largest sandwich franchisors in the country. You can reach out to me through LinkedIn.

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