Borrowing from his tech clients such as Twitter, Dean Kennett says service providers can apply 'hackathon' principles to come up with innovative ideas to improve quality across their business.
06 August 2018 | Dean Kennett
Traditionally, little time has been given to fostering creativity in contract catering, particularly outside of the kitchen.
But workplace food is changing. Over the past five years there has been a shift from cost to quality, as clients demand food that meets and exceeds what is available on the high street.
With a greater emphasis on food for well-being, the onus is on workplace caterers to provide healthy and tasty food in an environment that fosters creativity and productivity. This shift means that as a business we need to think creatively and act quickly to stay ahead of the competition.
That's a lot easier said than done. How do you encourage staff to take time for innovative thinking when they're busy running day-to-day operations?
We decided to take inspiration from our own client roster of leading tech companies that have built businesses by thinking differently and disrupting markets.
One of the most effective ways I've seen these companies generate new ideas is through "hack weeks" or "hackathons" - events that join people from disparate departments to collaborate for a set period of time on a defined problem.
Last month we held our own hack week to foster creativity and a culture of quality within our organisation.
Here are my five tips for applying hackathon principles to contract catering.
1. Focus on a single issue
Hackathons are most successful when focused on a particular problem or aspect. That's what gives direction to creative ideas and, therefore, greater probability for coming up with useful solutions. We directed ours towards improving quality. A survey to gauge the team's perception of quality, and simple tools such as our in-house messaging service to circulate quality control messages and photos have contributed to making quality improvements.
2. Get leadership buy-in
To get any changes in an organisation off the ground, it is imperative to have leadership buy-in. Hack weeks work best when contributors from across the business participate; for that to happen managers need to support their teams. In turn, directors need to support managers and communicate the benefits for allowing teams to take time out for creative thinking.
Being caught up in the daily rigmarole of service makes us think there's time for little else. The leadership team at Just Hospitality insisted on allowing time for passion projects like hack week to take shape.
3. Step into the unknown
A crucial element to hackathons is that participants are given time to work on projects they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to work on so that issues can be viewed from a different perspective.
Getting our catering managers to swap places for a day with a remit to uncover new ways to improve quality at our client sites gave way to customer journey improvements in our canteens.
Office staff made an early-morning visit to Smithfield Meat Market, for example, to learn more about provenance and suggest new menu items. All of this contributes to a better product for our clients.
4. Allow failure
An important part of any creative process is the free flow of ideas. For us, this meant doing creative exercises that allowed for any and all ideas to be put forward without fear of reprisal.
A small group visited one of our sites to observe our clients over the entire lunch service. After the observations we brainstormed ways to improve the service through exercises that sought fluency and flexibility of ideas as opposed to workability.
5. Review hacks for the future
It's not enough to simply do a hack week; the true results from a creative exercise like this emerge from what happens after the dust settles. Taking time to review the week helped us to implement good ideas, think more about ideas that had potential and let go of ideas that proved to be unworkable.
One of the best hacks to come out of the week was using a social messaging app to send front-of-house staff photos of plated food to ensure that the food leaving the central production kitchen is presented the way the chefs intend.
One month on, we're still using this system to improve food presentation.
Dean Kennett is managing director at contract caterer Just Hospitality