Steps to effective problem solving

Effective problem solving is not a skill that comes to most people naturally. It is a taught skill that must be practiced to become effective, a structure in the way you approach every problem you tackle. The following problem solving system is derived from a version of the scientific method I was taught at a very young age. One factor that classic versions of the scientific method do not take into account is perceived problems. A few of the problems facing the foodservice industry today are problems not derived from ineffective systems or procedures. They are derived from incorrect perceptions from our target audience.

What is a perceived problem? A perceived problem is a conclusion that some or many of your target audience have come to that may or may not be correct. Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Ever wondered why you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but never all of the people all of the time? Every person that comes in contact with you or your business will take away a different perception of you no matter how identical you act to everyone who walks in the front door. Every person will have their own perception of you.

Is perception important? Your friends or customers perception is actually more important than the facts. If the service in your restaurant is fantastic, but 2 percent of your clients believe your service is horrible, who’s correct? In the case of that 2 percent, they are. Will you sway their opinion by simply stating that they are incorrect because 98% of your clientele believes you give great service? Probably not. Is there really an actual problem with your service if 98% of the people are satisfied? Once again, probably not. Most lump this hypothetical 2% of customers into the category of people that you cannot please. I say it’s not true. In this case, the 2%’s perception of bad service in your restaurant is their reality, which makes it your reality in relation to them. Perception is always more important than reality.

            Can you change people’s perception of you or your restaurant? Absolutely. Rather than ignoring the opinions of a minority of people who think a different way than everyone else, try to form a different solution of how to please them in comparison with everyone else. Most often the conflicting perception of the minority in relation to the majority is caused by a different set of values they have in relation to a certain subject. While the majority of people may consider great service to mean they receive every item they need to make their meal complete without having to ask for it, other people may simply judge service by how friendly the server was despite a few mistakes here and there. Others still may judge service exclusively on speed while some judge it on formality. The differences in perceptions are infinite, but the reality is; you can change people’s perception of your restaurant if you can identify the cause of their perception. This is where an effective problem solving technique comes in to play.

             Studying and repeating this technique could help you become a more efficient problem solver. You may also find you are able to solve some problems you previously thought unsolvable. These seven steps can be related to personal, professional and scientific problems alike. Keep an open mind.

The Seven Steps to Effective Problem Solving 

  1. Evaluate – Identify your problem first. A problem is an effect resulting from an unidentified cause in a particular scenario.

There are two types of problems

a.            actual – an actual problem is identified by observing a direct and provable correlation between a cause and an effect without variation; the cause always produces the same effect in a given scenario. Perceived problems can always be broken down into one or more actual problems.

b.            perceived – this is a problem identified by witnessing an effect that cannot be created by repeating a cause; a repeated cause creates a different effect in identical scenarios. A perceived problem can be identified but cannot be solved until one or more actual problems are identified that create the perceived problem.To form a correct solution we have to identify the actual problem/s.

  1. Investigate – Ask questions. Who, what, when where, why, how. Ask every one of these questions for each problem identified. Do not assume.
  2. Hypothesize – Form an educated guess based on questions asked. What do you think the cause is?
  3. Analyze – Take apart a problem into base components. What are the most basic parts of the problem? If a problem is too complex to understand, it should be broken into smaller problems that make up the whole problem. Solve all the smaller problems separately to solve the whole problem. Gather information by experimenting with controls and variables using your hypothesis.

a.            controls – perform different tests in an identical scenario to attempt to recreate the same cause and effect; record the results

b.            variables – perform one test in different scenarios to attempt to recreate the same cause and effect; record the resultsThe cause of the problem will be identified when a common cause and corresponding effect is discovered to repeat itself in a particular scenario.

  1. Reevaluate – Identify the problem again to make sure it was correctly evaluated. If it is determined that the problem is perceived, analyze it until the actual problems that make it up are identified and restate the problem. Repeat from step 1 with the restated actual problem. If multiple restated actual problems are identified, the process must be repeated with each actual problem to solve the perceived problem.
  2. Synthesize – Put all information back together in a logical order.

Cause + Scenario = Effect.

  1. Conclude – Test the information. If the problem was correctly identified, and the correct cause of the problem found, the same effect should result from the same cause in the same scenario every time. Include in your conclusion any perceived problems and incorrect causes that were identified before they were broken down into actual problems. Restate the actual problem by identifying the cause and effect in the particular scenario. Identify a solution by changing the cause of the problem in the particular scenario to create a desired effect. Use a formula that you know already works for you or someone else.

  Key Words

Problem – an effect resulting from an unidentified cause in a particular scenario 

Cause – the catalyst that begins a problem Scenario – the conditions necessary to make a particular cause create a particular effect 

Effect – the result of a problem 

Actual problem – an actual problem is identified by observing a direct and provable correlation between a cause and an effect without variation; the cause always produces the same effect in a given scenario. Perceived problems can always be broken down into one or more actual problems. 

Perceived problem – this is a problem identified by witnessing an effect that cannot be created by repeating a cause; a repeated cause creates a different effect in identical scenarios. A perceived problem can be identified but cannot be solved until one or more actual problems are identified that create the perceived problem. 

Control – particular scenario used to prove or disprove a hypothesis with different causes and effects 

Variables – different scenarios used to prove or disprove a hypothesis with the same cause and effect   Memorize these steps in order until they are a natural thought process when confronted with a problem. You will become a more efficient problem solver.








Should I cancel our employee holiday party if we’re behind budget?

A good employee party done right is a gift that keeps on giving. Even if it means closing down for a day, it’s worth it for the goodwill earned with your staff. The quickest way to lose that goodwill is to not have a party that you normally have every year. That sends the message that you don’t like them as much this year, or they aren’t as good employees this year.

Your past parties sound fun. I think the key point to an employee party is just getting everyone together outside of work. I would suggest sinking a grand into some raffle prizes too. Give some stuff away. Make your party something your staff talks to all the new staff about. It will all come back to you through the year.

How should I go about marketing a New Year’s Eve event for a fine dining restaurant?

Have you taken advantage of your four walls and table tops to market this event? How about the wait staff? Price the event so you can offer five dollars for each reservation a member of your waitstaff brings in, guaranateed with a credit card. Market the event with table top print pieces and wall posters at your front door and in the bathrooms. Don’t forget to have an easy system for signup near the posters, and slips for the waitstaff that have spaces for all the information they need to collect.

If you have good day to day traffic in your restaurant, you should be able to fill up reservations by the wait staff selling them. You can also try radio spots. I don’t suggest radio for everyday advertising, but for special events they can work. Try a spot three weeks out, running in a good time slot for a couple days. Repeat the ad for several days start 4 to 5 days before the event.

Anyplace with a community calendar is a good spot to advertise also. Look to see if the newspaper is doing a specials New Years piece in the Entertainment section. Check for local magazine that the community looks to for entertainment information.

What makes a successful restaurant?

You won’t be able to find the answer as to what it is exactly that makes a restaurant successful in any forum. Without experiencing it for yourself, it’s tough to imagine that a restaurant is one of the most complicated businesses you can run. Most businesses are pretty simple. You buy a product, mark it up enough to cover your overhead, and hire people who can sell it effectively and count change, or you manage a warehouse, a sales team, a manufacturing line or a specific service your business offers.

A restaurant is so much more complicated than that. First, you are more than a retailer. You are running a warehouse. You have to have the same skills a good warehouse manager has, including a system for checking everything in and out of inventory, protecting your product from theft, knowing how to keep your vendors honest in their pricing and their service, tracking and recording all your purchases and usage. All of this for a 200 item inventory of PERISHABLE goods, not just pieces that can be stored indefinately.

You are also a manufacturer. You have to run several assembly lines at once, and fill the orders for your product faster than any manufacturing line ever has to. You’re not just making one product either. Usually, it’s at least 20, sometimes as many as 100 different products, all with the same employees. The parts for these products are also perishable. If your warehousing systems aren’t good, it can ruin the manufacturing of the products. If your products aren’t getting made efficiently, consistently, and cost effectively, the whole ship will go down.

You are also a delivery service. You have to have systems for delivering a product with a very short life span to the right place within a time limit, all the while doublechecking that the manufacturing of the product meets standards. The delivery systems inside your restaurant is even more important than any you might offer outside the four walls.

You’re running a sales team too. Your front of house staff have to not only be experts on your product, but also know how to sell customers your highest profit products. You’re margin for error on staffing sales personnel alone could sink you. Without effective sales staff, or staff with the ability to communicate work with the other systems in place, the whole system won’t work.

You are also a service provider. In addition to being your sales force, your front of house staff are also customer service representatives. The number of things that can go wrong within this entire complicated system are enormous. Your FOH staff have to make sure none of those mistakes ever effect the customer. That’s a big task.

You may also be a repair service and a custodian to your own building if you don’t want to pay someone else to do it. There is a lot of equipment in a restaurant to break, and a lot of square footage to keep clean. A breakdown in either of these operating systems could also ruin your business.

All this before we even make it to the management. Managers and owners in restaurants have to know how to run all these different types of businesses under one roof, in addition to being bookkeepers, expert marketers, graphic designers, realtors and human resource pros, while keeping up on legal issues from labor law to health codes, building codes and city ordinances. Not an easy task while you’re supervising a team full of low wage employees. It’s not easy finding managers with all these skills at the wages restaurants can afford to pay. It’s not even easy to have all these skills as the owner. With all the rest of this to consider, how can you even fathom how to price your product to pay for everything? Most owners can’t. They guess, or they use some bad math someone else taught them that doesn’t take into account the unique financial situation of their own restaurant, or the market they are competing in. Then they guess at what a good purchasing contract with their vendors is, they guess at whether their lease is a good one, and they bet on their food being SO good, people will line up at their door to get it.

A lack of experience in any one area of a restaurant can sink it. That doesn’t mean it will, many bad restaurants make money DESPITE the mistakes of their managers and owners, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to try. My advice to anyone opening a restaurant without experience is to use someone else’s. Either pay someone knowledgable to teach you what you don’t know, or open a franchise where all the planning is done for you and the operating systems are already in place.

If you are looking for reasons why restaurants fail, they are easy to find. There are a million of them. If you are looking for reasons why restaurants succeed, that’s a tougher task. I think marketing is the most important thing an owner does, but any one thing they don’t do in their business can counteract their greatest strength, even a natural knack for marketing.

Maybe after all this, you can see why I say that great food just isn’t enough. It’s only the minimum necessary requirement to running a successful restaurant. There is so much more.

I need a good incentive program that is fair to everyone.

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Bonus Plan Calculator Spreadsheet from our webstore

I suggest only using one thing to base your incentives on, the only thing that really matters, which is profit.

Whether you are encouraging upselling or controlling food costs, the ultimate goal is more profit to you. So rather than encouraging different segments of the staff to concentrate on different parts of the P&L, and setting the stage for them to fight with each other over what the other one is doing that is hurting their bonus, just cut out all the questions and bonus based strictly on your profit. From there, you have to educate your staff on all the nuances of achieving profitability. Then everyone has a common goal, and you don’t have issues like kitchen staff skimping on portions to try and hit a bonus. Bonusing someone for controlling your food costs doesn’t translate into profit if they also dissapoint your customers.

Visit our webstore to find a great bonus plan example and calculator to help you set up a simple profit-based bonus structure for your employees.

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When is it OK not to comp a meal?

Food comping should only be used in extreme cases. By comping food, you train your customers to expect it. Then when you don’t, they’re dissapointed for not getting something they wouldn’t have gotten at another restaurant anyways.

A customer that simply orders something they end up not liking, not because it was bad, but because it doesn’t suit their taste, is never someone whose meal should be comped in my opinion. Along with other complaints from customers who eat most or all their meal, or do not have enough of an appetite to let you make them something else, you should be offering these people some sort of bounce back offer instead of a comp.

Your first approach should always be to try and replace the food with something they do like. Even if you have to make a dish twice, as long as you collect the money for it, you still have some gross profit left to contribute. When you give a comp, you not only don’t get the money, but you also incurred the expense of preparing the food. The difference between collecting a reduced gross profit, and actually paying your customer to eat with you is huge.

If you can’t replace the food, and the customer’s complaint is reasonable, offer them a coupon or gift certificate and promise to make their next visit better. By comping the meal, you can’t guarantee that the customer will even come back. When you give them a discount for their next visit instead of a comp, there is a very good chance they will return, and they likely won’t be alone. You’ll have the opportunity to make a better impression and win a regular customer.