The Business, the Science, and the Continuous Improvement of “Bar Rescue”

Mark’s Note: I’ve been a huge fan of the show “Bar Rescue” for about three years ago. I record each episode (watching most of them out of that inventory) and I appreciate host Jon Taffer‘s approach (his book “Raise the Bar” was a good read on customer service and running a business). I’ve always meant to blog about the show (as I did about the similar show Kitchen Nightmares) but I’m glad Christina Kach did in this guest post…

Christina Kach

Christina Kach

For the Lean minded individual, Spike’s “Bar Rescue” is so much more than just a television show. It is basically a weekly, or binge-watched, case study on process improvement in bars across the country. “Bar Rescue” is another example of how any industry can benefit from continuous improvement.

This blog post can go one of two ways for you. Either you’ve seen the show and can reminisce along the way about how large a role continuous improvement principles play in the show or you’ll immediately feel the need to go watch and see for yourself. Consider yourself warned. And I know because that is what happened to me. Hey, you do Lean stuff right? You should check out this show Bar Rescue…and now, after many hours of “study,” I present this article.

If you are not familiar with the show the basic premise is this: Jon Taffer, a bar consultant, visits bars that have called for help to improve their failing business. Bar owners reaching out to Jon often share similar tales of woe: starting off with a booming venture, some issues occur which knocks down customer experience, eventually leading to a significant decline in their reputation and ultimately lost revenue.

The issues that Jon faces in each episode range from concerns about how to effectively manage inventory to absent owners with little business acumen. Jon solves these problems by investigating the current state (with the help of his team), getting to the root of the troubles and narrowing the focus of his rescue to key components that will improve the overall business. In getting from current state to future state, Jon employs a number of Lean techniques.

Jon Taffer

Jon Taffer

Understanding the Current State

Before we can truly make a significant difference in a business, we need to look at the current state; this is exactly how Jon starts the rescue. The show’s narrator starts by providing an overview of the bar details, its history and how it’s functioning. Next comes the data gathering, or “recon,” portion. Recon, or reconnaissance (a military word for gathering information), involves people recruited by Jon to go in and assess the bar from the customer’s point of view. A few areas they investigate are the bar’s atmosphere, food and drinks (both in taste and presentation), and behavior of the staff. Jon and his team of hospitality experts watch the action from a surveillance SUV and comment on the physical layout, employee performance, and how the food and beverages are executed. The show also gathers voice of the customer by interviewing customers about their experiences at the bar.

Martini 01

After recon wraps up, Jon heads into the bar to talk with the owner, managers and staff. He asks for their personal feelings, ideas, and concerns about the bar. Next he “goes to gemba” by taking a walk around the bar to see the physical space layout, equipment and setups. By pulling business records and inventory information (by way of tracking systems installed on the liquor bottles) Jon is able to collect hard data on the bars’ performance. Through this work, as with any good Lean initiative, Jon has taken the time to collect data, understand what is going on, and talk to those close to the work.

Now, with a more complete picture of the bar’s current state and value (or lack thereof) to the customers, Jon is able to start focusing on what the main issues, or root causes, are for this particular business. One episode may feature a bar that isn’t a fit with the nearby market, hurting the number of customers they bring in, and the following week discover a poor bar setup hindering successful drink service. Mr. Taffer is able to strip away the symptoms and noise to zone in on the specific concerns what areas of that bar need improvement. And it isn’t all negative; he spends time calling out what the bar is doing well so they can capitalize on those opportunities.

Essentially, Jon has begun his problem solving by defining the problem statement, capturing current state and finding the root causes.

Following the initial discussions and current state analysis, Jon starts to paint a future vision with the manager. He taps into the nearby market and demographic data to help the owners understand their clientele base. They discuss the physical space and how it could be put to better use for the customer experience (or to generate more revenue). In reviewing colors, layout, paint, signage and decorations, they converse about creating a more comfortable atmosphere for the customers. The benefits being when customers are more comfortable (and feel safe), they are likely to stay longer and spend more. As Jon hospitality experts go to work, they show the chefs the tasty menus they can create and the new cocktail lists to entice the customers.

Moving Toward Solutions

Through the current state and target state work, the team is able to find the specific solutions that will help the bar become a success moving forward. The solutions are generally focused around these following areas of opportunity:

Processes

Jon fixes existing processes, creates new ones, and removes those that no longer work. An example of this is fixing broken links between food ordering and getting that information into the kitchen. Pieces of standard work are created. We often see the need for standard work by the lack of consistency of mixing drinks between different bartenders. By coming up with a menu and ingredient list (complete with amounts and how to stir or shake) the same outcome is produced each time. By having established practices, you are also better able to handle refresher training to tenured staff and new hires alike.

Coaching

To ensure the processes and standards are upheld, and possibly even find improvements, the managers are tutored on how to help in monitoring the processes by being out on the floor, watching the goings-on and checking in on standard adherence. By being out where the work is happening they are able to understand reality, and help their employees through coaching to the processes and standards established.

Environment/Physical Space

Even with procedures in place and improvements in coaching, the physical bar design has to allow for customer satisfaction and employee ease of use. For the customer, Jon designs an atmosphere that is welcoming, comfortable and set up for the target market (which makes customers stay longer and help with profit). The lighting will sometimes be lower for more of a “speakeasy” vibe and more TVs will be set up for sports bars. Chairs will be selected either for comfort or to allow better socializing. The outside of the bar is renovated to draw more attention, improving signage and better marketing of their value proposition. For the employees, the bar workstations, tap locations, key systems, kitchen equipment and service areas are all designed ergonomically and for ease of use for improved service and employee comfort.

Setting People Up for Success

A common theme throughout the series is what we would call “focusing on the process not the person.” Not setting employees up for a success is frequently discussed by Jon and the bar’s management team. Without the right tools, processes or comfortable environment, you can’t set up even the best of employees to be amazing performers. By setting up processes and systems, as discussed above, that work for the employees, they can flourish and put their talents to the best possible use. Employees often have great ideas on how to make things better – and their ideas are not listened to, or they don’t bother speaking up because ideas are not encouraged. The employees are your front line to the work and to the customer. Who better to help come up with improvements to the process?

Leadership

How do all these parts come together to create a successful bar? Strong leadership. By genuinely role modeling the behavior they expect in their employees and holding everyone, themselves included, accountable (e.g. not turning the other way when an employee is stealing money or liquor) they are setting the standard for how to conduct a serious business. A strong leader can make all the difference in the bar’s future by being there for the employees, taking on the management of inventory and money and striving to continue improving.

Testing and Implementing Ideas

As with any project or initiative, we pilot test the solutions, edit, and then fully integrate the changes. The testing and implementation in bar rescue is completed through the “re-launch” event at the end of the show. In this soft opening of the newly improved bar, the employees and staff are able to test out the devised solutions and feel the impact of the changes in the real work setting. The final step, the continued improvement of these solutions, is up the bar’s staff and leadership as Jon completes his work and leaves the building.

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During the rescue, from current state to generating and implementing solutions, Jon involves the entire bar staff. Continuous improvement needs the help of the front line to be effective; those directly interacting with the customers, those doing the work every day. By incorporating employee feedback and ideas, as well as involving them in the change process, the show is ensuring the staff feels ownership as part of the solution. When we are part of the change, when we support it, had a hand in it, are motivated by the change itself and the brighter future from it, we work harder to keep the changes and to continue growing. Continuous Improvement is built it in to every idea and solution implemented.

Almost every bar on the show started out profitable. Many times, the bar owners got comfortable with the status quo and didn’t put in the money for maintenance, the effort for training or the energy to keep improving the bar’s value to the market. If you want to keep a successful business going, you can’t get comfortable. You have to continue to improve.

After Jon transforms a bar he leaves the owners with a message of sustainability; you can’t get comfortable or go back to your old ways if you want to keep the successes. On occasion the show will do a “back to the bar” episode to revisit rescued bars to see how they have been performing since Jon left. Many have been able to sustain the changes and have started to again generate a profit, while some others have slipped back.

Change is Hard

Change is hard. That’s both obvious and an understatement. Even with the prospect of a shiny new bar, new business plan, and help from an expert, many mangers still have a hard time letting go of the old ways of doing business. For example, they don’t want to change the name, or change the menu, even when what they were doing before wasn’t working. What Jon coaches to is the way to keep the spirit of what came before, while still improving for the better, and not losing yourself in the newness. As we address change in our business, we can reassure that while things will change, you don’t have to lose yourself and who you are with it, both as an individual or as a company.

Lessons for Lean?

As Lean practitioners, what are some lessons we can learn from “Bar Rescue”?

Well, for one, Jon is the only improvement specialist who can get away with the tough love approach of yelling and storming out in anger. Plus, it makes better TV. Our business and teams are not reality TV, we are just reality, and we have to behave with genuine patience and desire for understanding. We focus less on high cost projects and revamps in the world on continuous improvement; instead favoring lower cost solutions, not just throwing money at a problem but using critical thinking, and focusing on small incremental improvements. However, again, this being TV, there is seemingly no expense spared in repairing and reviving these bars. Add in the many advertisers and sponsors, and most of the new furnishings come at a reduced cost to the show and the business. Failing businesses would otherwise not be able to pay for these upgrades themselves.

What we can learn, regardless of how much money is spent, and is that we have to invest in improvement. We also learn that it is OK to ask for help when we are stuck; it doesn’t make us weak because we ask for assistance. Finally, the customer is often left out of conversations with the bar owners, other than the fact that they are losing customers. By seeing images of the near-empty bars, it reminds us of the importance of talking about what our customers’ value and how we can best deliver that value – no matter our business or industry.

So Jon, if you are reading this, I am a bar customer with ten years of process improvement experience…in case you are ever looking for another subject matter expert to help you. (Pick me!)

Do you watch the show? Have you found yourself mentally improving the bar along with Jon? What have you learned or applied to your own practice from watching the show? And if you haven’t seen it, Sundays at 10pm Spike TV – check it out! You won’t be disappointed. But you may never look at a bar the same way again.


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Christina Kach is a Senior Business Analyst on the Continuous Improvement team for a financial services company in Boston, Ma. Christina held her first Lean position as in intern in 2006. Since then she has continued to seek out varied roles of increasing responsibility and actively pursues further Lean education. She recently held the role of Continuous Improvement Lead for a Government Defense Company based in Massachusetts, focusing on Lean implementation and process improvement in a manufacturing environment.

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13 Comments on "The Business, the Science, and the Continuous Improvement of “Bar Rescue”"

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  1. Ryan says:

    I am also a fan of the show (and an experienced Lean practitioner). Watching this show has made me reflect on the following questions:

    – Any web research I’ve done (not scientific) suggests that the sustainment rate for these rescues is low (including the show’s own follow up episodes). What thoughts do you have on what Taffer could do to increase this rate (if anything)?

    – Taffer is a bar expert and often designs the reconfigured concept with little involvement of the owner and staff (or it appears that way on tv). What do you see the risks for change given this model?

    – Jon’s style reminds me of a Japanese sensei I was coached by early in my career. Why do you suppose this style is used?

    • Mark Graban
      Twitter:
      says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

      You’re right that sustainment rates are low. There are important lessons there about the inability of an expert to force somebody to change, even if they’ve “asked for help.” Reminds me of what happens in Lean land. Not involving people in change is usually a recipe for failure.

      http://www.barrescueupdates.com/ has some of the stories of what happened.

      Many of the bars end up closed. Many change back to the old failed name and concept.

      Even if there are facts and data that show an organization is failing, people are complex. Emotions and pride often trump facts and improvement.

      I’ve read Taffer’s book and he says the yelling and screaming is intentional, that he never loses control. He’s always choosing to get angry and yell, or so he claims. He says it’s a necessary wake up call to get people’s attention. Not something I’d want to model in Lean land.

    • Hi Ryan,

      Sadly, I always have the feeling watching the show that the improvements may not sustain. Which is a shame. Though I do have to remind myself it is a TV show, and while the intention is good – to help business owners – it is still for entertainment and ratings. I think there are many TVs shows aimed at improvement that people falter after the show has closed.

      The improvements to the bar, or whatever the TV show may be, are helped along by a guiding hand. In this case it is Jon. When that guiding hand leaves and they are on their own again, they default to what they know. Maybe they need to hire a more experienced manager. Or have someone with more experience stick around longer to make sure the owner/managers really “get” the change. There are some cases of people who just wanted to be on the show and didn’t have much of an ambition anyway to sustain.

      I touched a bit on this risk of not including people in the article. When the people being affected by the change are not involved in the change is it harder for them to adopt the new ways or want to improve on it. The show does make it seem like owner/manager conversation is minimal, though I don’t think we have enough evidence. One thing the show could do would be to send a team of designers to the bar pre-filming to work with the manager on a design, get them more included. But part of the magic of Jon is that he has that eye for design.

      Again, it is TV, so an element of it is for entertainment value. But I think Jon is living up to his claim as a “bar consultant” by going in and helping and coaching. And being true to his style. I think some of the “yelling” really comes from his passion for doing this and wanting to see things done better.

      • I also think the show can be used as a training tool for bar owners or business owners that may be watching to get some insights into how to better run their own business. Some things they haven’t thought of or ways to improve.

        • Mark Graban
          Twitter:
          says:

          Yeah, hopefully some of those bar owners then CHOOSE to improve, instead of having it forced on them.

          I think sometimes the bar owners cynically just want free stuff — free POS, free physical makeover — but they really have no intention of changing. Or maybe some want to prove Jon isn’t an expert.

  2. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    I’d be curious how the success rate compares to “Kitchen Nightmares,” “The Profit,” and similar business improvement shows. I really like Marcus Lemonis and The Profit. He actually takes an investment stake in the companies he helps and is involved for more than a week. Marcus will challenge people but isn’t the screamer that Taffer is.

  3. I haven’t heard of the profit. But I’m also wondering about something like “The Biggest Loser” success rate after as well. Are they able to keep up the healthy lifestyles? Though I haven’t seen the show in a long time, they may have that built in.

    This raises good questions about the sustainability of changes. But I’m hoping people still see this article as the example of wide reaching application of continuous improvement not matter the industry.

  4. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    Here’s the official Bar Rescue YouTube channel… doesn’t have full episodes, but there are some interesting clips:

  5. Mark Graban
    Twitter:
    says:

    Here’s a typical scene from the show…

  6. Nick says:

    Great post, Christina. The parallels between Jon’s approach and lean tools is evident, though specifically I see the most similarity in how many organizations attempt to adopt lean; through charismatic individuals and the pushing of tools into processes and onto people, which is my theory on why sustainment is an issue. Jon is an extremely charismatic individual and can get most bar owners and employees to follow and believe in him. Once he’s gone, there is nothing left to stop them from reverting to their old ways. And even you mention the lack of employee involvement in design of the changes (tools). They are often best practices or new equipment pushed onto the people, and while they may be helpful additions, only the what and how is shared, not the why. People need the why. The bar has its own systems, and tools pushed into them with nothing to address the underlying reasons why they did what they used to do has no chance of sustainment (minus the expensive POS system that is an obvious upgrade). It’s no surprise that many of the success stories include those bars where employees were promoted and show strong ownership for the new changes. One of the biggest lessons for me is that when you want to make change happen, turnover is inevitable, which has become taboo in the world of lean. People emphatically note that lean does not/should not ever lead to the loss of a job or employee. But sometimes, when you have an ideal state to achieve, not everyone will be on board.. We should help them along (train, coach, etc) and do what we can to keep those people. But to quote a statement I heard recently from an ED physician, “Tell me the why, and I’ll follow you through almost any what and how. Just know that some people won’t agree with the why, and they’ll leave, and that’s OK.”

    • Mark Graban
      Twitter:
      says:

      I don’t think turnover is taboo in the world of Lean. Mass layoffs as the result of productivity improvement is taboo.

      I think we have an obligation to try to coach and mentor leaders (at all levels) into the Lean style of leadership. Some can’t (or won’t adapt). Firing somebody for cause (doing so in a humane way and with a nice severance or retirement package) is sometimes the thing that’s most respectful.

      We could have a huge debate about whether or not the Jon Taffer method is “respectful.” When a badly run bar is putting customers’ safety at risk, yelling at a cook or owner (to protect customers) might be the most respectful thing.

      Respect doesn’t mean being superficially nice. Taiichi Ohno supposedly yelled and screamed a lot. Dr. Deming was really tough on executives.

      That doesn’t mean we need to emulate their behavior or Taffer’s to be “Lean.”

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