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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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