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Engineering

Two Lights: How to Manage Expectations

What product people can learn from restaurants

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Photo by Andrea Fridley

In the mid-aughts I waited tables at a busy local landmark restaurant. It’s the kind of gig where you have no choice but hustle — big sections, quick turnover, huge menu, manual ticketing (calculators!). And yet, the local alt-weekly raved:

When the kitchen is slammed — as is wont to happen at a place so popular — you will be updated and assuaged well enough that getting annoyed and impatient won’t occur to you. (Why can’t airline gate agents handle delays as well as these kids do?)

In all kinds of work—software products, client work, service contracts—managing expectations keeps everybody happy. I think of work in restaurant terms all the time, and use the same process to keep my collaborators out of the dark. How does it work? “The lights.”

Identify the bottleneck

See, the dining rooms have expanded over the years, but the kitchen hasn’t much, and the grill hasn’t either. A burger’s going to take up the same amount of space, and cook in the same amount of time, no matter what. When the kitchen expo sees a few dozen burger orders come in at once, he knows things are going to slow down.

Let the whole staff know

The kitchen has two ways to communicate the impending slowdown to the rest of the staff: calling out “ONE LIGHT,” and flipping a switch on their side of the late night expo window. This switch turns on one of two little red lights visible to the wait staff and host station. On hearing “ONE LIGHT!” repeated human megaphone-style throughout the joint, the staff knows a well-done burger might take 30 minutes to hit a table.

Say it’s a breezy summer night where the patio’s packed, there’s a show downstairs, and the kitchen continues to get slammed, the DEFCON scale can escalate to “TWO LIGHTS!”.

Let customers know

After getting word, the hosts let everybody who comes in the door know: things are slower than usual. They’re welcome to put their name on the list and hang out as long as they like, but they might want to try somewhere else if they have tickets to a 7:00 movie.

Make extra sure customers know

I remember my patter, on handing out menus to a new table:

“You may have heard that the kitchen’s a bit behind right now, since we’re so busy. If you’re not in a rush, take your time and order what you like, but if you’d like I can direct you to things on the menu that might make it out sooner than burgers and wings.”

Nothing about the reality of the grill has changed, but everybody in the building knows what’s happening, and has control over how they react to it. Customers either settle in for another beer, or order a salad. Everybody’s happier.

Manage expectations continuously

If you’re working on a project with a hard deadline, and it seems like you might have to drop some features to hit the date, flip that switch and let the team and the client know as soon as possible.

It’s not:

  • lowering expectations so people are more impressed. Who wants to go to bed thinking “I really surprised everybody by not being as terrible as I let on”?
  • panicking. Have you ever had one of those hair-on-fire, first-day-on-the-job, way-in-the-weeds servers? It’s stressful for everybody involved.
  • making excuses. If everyone knows how things are going early enough that they can still make choices, it’s not an excuse. It’s information.

If you’re out in the world, working on something longer-term than a Saturday night dinner, your customer or client or user might take the info you’ve given them back to their customer or client or user, to help that person make decisions before it’s too late. You’re starting a chain of responsibility that lets everyone act like a competent grownup.

So when the window’s full, the grill’s packed, and a twelve-top walks in, don’t hunker down and hope for the best. It’s time to turn on a light.

Story published on Mar 29, 2017.