Fifty Minute Classroom

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50-Minute Classroom: Working in Teams Needs to Be Taught

04 September 2013

Students in teams don’t necessarily have to like each other, says Chef Weiner. They won’t have the luxury of choosing their teammates in the real world, after all. But they do have to learn to work together to execute a successful meal. Here are proven tips to teach them how.

By Adam Weiner, CFSE

At the recent CAFÉ Leadership Conference in Miami I had the privilege of attending a seminar by Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures. Paul said something that was a proverbial slap in the face for me. He stated that all culinary instructors teach with teams, but we don’t really understand how teams work, nor do we specifically teach our students how to work in teams.

One of the key items he covered is that there are four phases in each team project:

Testing

Infighting

Organization

Mature Closeness

The first thing people do when assigned to a team is to test out the other team members and themselves in the team. How much do the other team members know? How much can I assert myself in the team? Will I be able to ride on other people’s coattails?

The second phase is the infighting that we have all seen. Each member of the team fights to get things done the way he or she wants. There is rebellion by the others, and this is where the teams have the most problems. This is where everyone is going to be in your office (usually one at a time) complaining that the other people are not working, that “it isn’t fair,” etc. (When this happens, I tell my students that when they go to work they will be working in teams and they had better learn how to deal with it.)

The third level is where the team actually figures out that they have to work together, and they have to organize. My students find this one particularly difficult. I will give a new team of four a cooking assignment of making a soup or salad, an entrée with a side dish and a dessert. The obvious happens: Each person makes one part.

There are multiple problems with this approach, and the dishes don’t usually match (a cheese enchilada served with minestrone, for example), the dishes aren’t done at the same time, and the kitchen is trashed with everyone using their own cutting boards, knives, etc.

How I have learned to help teams work through getting organized is to trick them the first time they work together. When they present their dishes, I pick one person to present everything. The student stumbles and falls apart when she/he doesn’t know what the soup is because that person made the dessert. (Be careful to watch the other groups while this is going on. When they see what you are doing, they will huddle up and try to discuss the dishes. Don’t let them.) I tell the group that they failed the assignment because they acted as four individuals, not as one group. I explain that in a good kitchen you need to know what other people are doing so you can coordinate your dishes with them and so you can jump into help when needed. (I refer to “Hell’s Kitchen,” which many of them seem to watch. We discuss what happens when the people on the blue team or red team act as individuals and not as part of the team.)

The last phase of Mature Closeness is what a well-run kitchen is all about. This is where the group works not as individuals, but as a team. They trust each other, they know strengths and weaknesses and they know what they can do—and, more importantly, can’t do.

I volunteer to teach part time for the Navy’s Adopt-A-Ship program, and this mature level of working together is what allows 10 people to turn out more than 1,200 meals a day, with each meal having at least 10 items, plus a full salad bar, plus desserts. I explain to my regular students that when I am doing this Navy teaching, the ship’s culinary specialists aren’t running around like crazy, yelling or freaking out. They get everything done right on schedule.

There is one more point of mature closeness that you need to teach to your students: It doesn’t matter if they like each other. That is not a requirement. What is required is that they be able to work together smoothly and professionally.

Next month I will write about some creative ideas for picking teams.

Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.

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