Agile Lessons from a Southern Cafe

Meet “Jerry’s”

Since starting down the agile road 11 years ago (twas a two-track back then compared to the I-75/I-85-esque super interstate it is now), I have found that I can learn from or find coaching examples from some of the most unexpected and interesting places.  It is these constant reminders of the journey, the culture, and the commitment to a return to our natural state of agility that keeps me pushing for new ideas and for the culture change needed to improve.

If you in a small southern town like we do, you have a favorite breakfast spot.  Ours is called “Jerry’s Country Kitchen.”  My wife and I have began making it a tradition to frequent this eatery at least once a week, mostly Saturday mornings, upon moving back from the Chicago Northshore Suburbs.  Something in us became enlivened by the interaction of regulars and community folks and simply had to find a way to fulfill this part of our life (even though we love our less urban proximity).  On a recent trip, we had the opportunity [read: the whole place was full] to sit at the bar.

As with northern diners, the layout of the such a restaurant is basically some tables around the outside surrounding a central core which is kitchen, pay station, and a bar stool equipped place for lone eaters looking for a bit of early morning centering, information absorption, and simple “bull-shooting” over healthy sized sorghum-topped biscuits.

Anyway, back to the story…  So, in this visit, we sat center of bar – center of the restaurant.  This allowed a full view of the kitchen (upon swinging, saloon-style door opens), the workers, the “boss,” the customers, and the facilities.  It became obvious that this trip was going to inspire a new view Agile Principles and I thought I would share those with you.

Focus on what you do well and do it better

There was no Steak Tartar here; no one would have ordered it if there had been.  There was not even any “southern breakfast deconstructed” or other nuevo-southern cuisine that is making its way to the deep south.  This place knew what they did well – biscuits, grits, eggs, hash browns, and an assortment of true southern breakfast meats.  They weren’t trying to “macro-evolve.”  One could also tell that the way they interacted and the food they delivered had been honed to a fine edge over the years – a true sign of microevolution or continuous improvement – so that they were better at what they did well.  Oddly, there sits a circa-1995 cappuccino machine off to the side as well as what looks to be the remnants of some other commercial kitchen gadgetry that was, no doubt, the thing that would bring in the bigger crowds (like they needed it).  But, alas, it wasn’t their strength, so over time it was discarded for a return to what made them great.

When you are in plain sight, no one asks for proof any more

This isn’t as groundbreaking as it once was.  My wife and I were no more than 10 feet from the kitchen, though.  I could see through the doors (again saloon style), the serving window; I could hear everything going on.  There was no privacy, no personal space.  They were here to do one thing – cook a really good breakfast.  And guess what?  I didn’t ask to go in and review their processes or their methods.  The proof was not only in the delivery of high quality product, but also in the fact that there was nothing to hide!  We could actually hear the eggs crack, the rolling oven sound, the hash browns flip!  Now, I completely understand that time to time, there are professionals that evaluate cleanliness and health guidelines, and that is fine by me, but the point is that because 1) the product was released quickly, 2) I had information radiators to key me in on what was going on, oh and 3) someone was asking, “hey, did you send out those grits yet? Table 3 is still waiting” when there was a miss, I didn’t need proof that things would be delivered.

Team cohesion and longevity trump process every time

As we sat there and watched (me in awe, really) at the interaction of this 5-6 person team, it became evident that they didn’t sit around and plan out their process.  Yes, I know some of you hard-core people will tell me that this is simple repetitive tasks unlike the “unknowing” of software development.  I will tell you that you have never tried to bake, keep warm, and deliver the perfect southern biscuit in the variable conditions and environment of Georgia before!  It is science and art, my friend.  But, what I found is that they operated based on the fail fast, fix fast process.  Servers and busboy were constantly in and out of the single point of entry to the kitchen without so much as one dropped dish.  Also, there was minor correction going on even in middle of orders – specifically around foods to deliver first when it exceeded a single trip.  All of this pointed at the fact that the delivery of a product was primary – all other processes were learned through mentoring, retrospective, and honest failure.  It was also evident that this had been going on for a while.  While I couldn’t say that the entire team was together as long as the establishment was around, I can tell you that the core was a consistent group that was excellent at knowledge sharing and corporate product ownership.

Bringing it back around

We should all be lucky enough to be on teams like these folks.  In this one visit (of many), they exhibited at least nine of the 12 principles behind the agile manifesto.  But it was about interactions, not processes.  It was about working software above documentation.  It was about a valuable and working product!  And it was about adapting to changing conditions.

If your agile teams are struggling, take them on a trip and let them see the parallels between themselves and this kind of place.  But if you are a leader, let me also fill you in on this one last point – the owner only shows up to help out on the floor when things get busy and they need an extra hand.  Just something to think about!

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