Lessons from "Kitchen Nightmares"


Fox TV Website

I've only watched the first half of the premiere episode, but I am (at least temporarily) riveted by the new Fox show “Kitchen Nightmares” with chef Gordon Ramsay. I never tried the show “Hell's Kitchen” where he was trying to train (and/or verbally abuse) chefs in training, but I checked this one out because the first episode was free on Apple iTunes and it gave me something to watch while in the gym.

In this series, Ramsay parachutes in to a different restaurant each week, usually a place that's a total disaster. In the pilot, Ramsay goes to a family run Italian restaurant on Long Island, NY. The brother co-owner is a total out-of-touch mess, having no idea what his employees are struggling with back in the kitchen and he considers the business his personal piggy bank, while it's on the verge of going out of business. I'm sure there are some small family manufacturing businesses out there that are in the same condition.

Ramsay reminded me of the stereotypical Japanese lean “sensei,” walking through the kitchen and the walk-in refrigerator, screaming and swearing at the co-owner, Peter, about how embarrassing and ridiculous the place is. Why it requires outside eyes to see all of this is hard to understand (although it's similar to an outsider coming into a factory and seeing waste with fresh eyes). Oh, for the record, it's not my style to yell and swear at people, regardless of how much waste there is…

So, then Ramsay brings Peter through the walk-in, showing him the rotting food, the leaking roof, the generally unsanitary conditions. It's clear that Peter has never walked the “gemba” and has never seen the situation first hand.

Ramsay yells at him and Peter reacts as if it's not his responsibility. As with many bad leaders, he does not take ownership of the situation and he starts yelling at his employees for making him look bad.

Ramsay then tells Peter he needs to work in the kitchen during the next lunch rush. Although his employees had complained about it endlessly, Peter was forced to struggle with the broken ovens, broken cooktops, broken broiler, lack of tools, etc. It didn't help that he knew NOTHING about being in a restaurant kitchen.

Peter's employees had tried complaining about the bad tools, but he chose to buy himself a new suit instead of a new oven. So, service was suffering and the kitchen staff were all really frustrated, but, again, Peter was clueless.

I haven't yet watched the second half of the show, I will probably do so on a plane today. I'm assuming Ramsay is able to pull a miraculous recovery and there will be a happy ending. We'll see.

I hope none of you are in a similar parallel factory situation today. Watching a show like Kitchen Nightmares can help you feel thankful that your workplace isn't that big of a mess. The Lean approach teaches us to “walk the gemba” — to go and see the actual workplace. Even senior leaders have to walk the gemba. You have to make sure your employees have the proper tools they require to do their jobs. You can't just run around the periphery with all of the trappings of “being the boss” if you're not going to take responsibility. You have to be a leader.

Here is Part 2 of my synopsis and analysis.


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Ages ago I worked in a very similar situation. Nothing changed until our steam tables quit working, allowing some food to cool below 140 degrees. We gave a dozen customers salmonella poisoning. That woke up the owner, at least temporarily. It didn’t matter in the long run, though. The place still folded a few years later due to the owner’s attitude, which was exactly like you describe Peter’s.

  2. You bring a great focus to the importance of the Gemba walk. Without upper management really going to the actual place of work and having open eyes, to truly identify the opportunities, a lean journey is lost. Last week this really became a live example in one of our plants when the plant manager stood in one place for over an hour, while being trained to identify all the wastes within that area. To say it was eye opening for him would be a huge understatement. Needless to say, I now have his total buy in to the implementation of lean. Nice parallel example with the kitchen.

  3. Couldn’t help but comment on this: if you are watching a video or reading during a workout, it reduces the effectiveness of your workout. Another example of where multitasking doesn’t work.


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