May 16 2011

Pret a Manager

Pret a Manager

My friend James is the GM of the Pret a Manger (a chain of about 250 “everyday luxury” quick service restaurants in the UK and US) at 36th and 5th in Manhattan.  James recently won the President’s Award at Pret for doing an outstanding job opening up a new restaurant.  As part of my ongoing effort to learn and grow as a manager, I thought it would be interesting to spend a day shadowing James and seeing what his operation and management style looked like for a team of two dozen colleagues in a completely different environment than Return Path.  That day was today.  I’ll try to write up the day as combination of observations and learnings applied to our business.  This will be a much longer post than usual.  The title of this post is not a typo – James is “ready to manage.”

1. Team meeting.  The day started at 6:45 a.m. pre-opening with a “team brief” meeting.  The meeting only included half a dozen colleagues who were on hand for the opening, it was a mix of fun and serious, and it ended with three succinct points to remember for the day.  I haven’t done a daily huddle with my team in years, but we do daily stand-ups all across the company in different teams.  The interesting learning, though, is that James leaves the meeting and writes the three points on a whiteboard downstairs near the staff room.  All staff members who come in after the meeting are expected to read the board and internalize the three points (even though they missed the meeting) and are quizzed on them spontaneously during the day.  Key learning:  missing a meeting doesn’t have to mean missing the content of the meeting.

2. Individual 1:1 meeting.  I saw one of these, and it was a mix of a performance review and a development planning session.  It was a little more one-way in communication than ours are, but it did end up having a bunch of back-and-forth.  James’s approach to management is a lot of informal feedback “in the moment,” so this formal check-in contained no surprises for the employee.  The environment was a little challenging for the meeting, since it was in the restaurant (there’s no closed office, and all meetings are done on-site).  The centerpiece of the meeting was a “Start-Stop-Continue” form.  Key learning:  Start-Stop-Continue is a good succinct check-in format.

3. Importance of values.  There were two forms of this that I saw today.  One was a list of 13 key behaviors with an explanation next to each of specific good and bad examples of the behavior.  The behaviors were very clear and were “escalating,” meaning Team Members were expected to practice the first 5-6 of them, Team Leads the first 7-8, Managers the first 10, Head Office staff the first 12, Executives all 13 (roughly).  The second was this “Pret Recipe,” as posted on the public message board (see picture below).  Note – just like our values at Return Path, it all starts with the employee.  One interesting nugget I got from speaking to a relatively new employee who had just joined at the entry level after being recruited from a prominent fast food chain where he had been a store general manager was “Pret really believes this stuff — no lip service.”

I saw the values in action in two different ways.  The first was on the message board, where each element of the Pret Recipe was broken out with a list of supporting documents below it, per the below photo.  Very visual, very clear.

The second was that in James’s team meeting and in his 1:1 meeting, he consistently referenced the behaviors.  Key learning:  having values is great, making them come to life and be relevant for a team day-in, day-out is a lot harder but quite powerful when you get it right.

4. Managing by checklist.  I wrote about this topic a while ago here, but there is nothing like food service retail to demand this kind of attention to detail.  Wow.  They have checklists and standards for everything.  Adherence to standards is what keeps the place humming.  Key learning:  it feels like we have ~1% of the documentation of job processes that Pret does, and I’m thinking that as we get bigger and have people in more and more locations doing the same job, a little more documentation is probably in order to ensure consistency of delivery.

5. Extreme team-based and individual incentive compensation.  Team members start at $9/hour (22% above minimum wage that most competitors offer).  However, any week in which any individual store passes a Mystery Shopper test, the entire staff receives an incremental $2/hour for the whole week.  Any particular employee who is called out for outstanding service during a Mystery Shop receives a $100 bonus, or a $200 bonus if the store also passes the test.  The way the math works out, an entry level employee who gets the maximum bonus earns a 100% bonus for that week.  But the extra $2/hour per team member for a week seemed to be a powerful incentive across the board.  Key learning: team-based incentive comp is something we use here for executives, but maybe it’s worth considering for other teams as well.

6. Integrated systems.  Pret has basically one single software system that runs the whole business from inventory to labor scheduling to finances.  All data flows through it directly from point of sale or via manager single-entry.  All reports are available on demand.  The system is pretty slick.  There doesn’t seem to be much use of side systems and side spreadsheets, though I’m sure there are some.  Key learning: there’s a lot to be said for having a little more information standardized across the business, though the flip side is that this system is a single point of failure and also much less flexible than what we have.

7. Think time.  I’ve written a little about working “on the business, not in the business,” or what I call OTB time, once before, and I have another post queued up for later this summer about the same.  Brad Feld also very kindly wrote about it in reference to Return Path last week.  Working in retail means that time to work on IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT issues is extremely hard to come by and fragmented.  I suspect that it comes more at the end of the day for James, and it probably comes a lot more when he doesn’t have someone like me observing him and asking him questions.  But his “office” (below), exposed to the loud music and sounds and smells of the kitchen, certainly doesn’t lend itself to think time!  Key learning:  of course customers come first, but boy is it critical to make space to work OTB, not just ITB.  Oh, and James needs a new chair that’s more ergonomically compatible with his high countertop desk.

Years ago, I spent a few weekends working in my cousin Michael’s wine store in Hudson, NY, and I wrote up the experience in two different posts on this blog, the first one about the similarities between running a 2-person company and a 200-person company, and the second one about how in a small business, you have to wear one of every kind of hat there is.  My conclusion then was that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to running businesses of different types.  My conclusion from today is exactly the same, though the focus on management made for a very different experience.

Thanks to James, Gustavo, Orlanda, Shawona, and the rest of the team at the 36th & 5th Pret for putting up with the distraction of me for the bulk of the day today — I learned a lot (and particularly enjoyed the NYC Meatball Hot Wrap) and now have to figure out how to return the favor to you!