Oftentimes we are so engaged in the task in front of us that we fail to see what the future might hold. Today’s challenges need to be met, but do they help to set the stage for a bright future? What is often lacking in an “in the moment” approach towards operating a restaurant is how we might prepare for something greater, an evolving and growing attention to excellence that can help the operation weather future storms, attract exceptional employees, and welcome raving fans. The key may very well be – creating a learning environment, an organization dedicated to improvement.
Peter Senge, a systems thinker and author on the same subject, defines a learning organization as one that “creates an environment where employees can, through reflection, develop their sense of vision – how they look at the world, what matters to them, and what they are passionate about contributing to.” Now, this may seem a bit lofty and disconnected from the stress of the moment and the need to get the job done but hear me out.
When you dig deeper into the concept, learning organizations are ones where growth, knowledge, and understanding are critical and are not only expected but also supported by leadership. Every person, from the dishwasher to the executive chef, is encouraged and expected to continue to learn new skills and new concepts. Their individual growth helps the team and the entire organization grow.
In this ongoing challenge of finding and retaining good employees, when competitive advantage and uniqueness are overrun with the need to survive, it may be time to stop and think about where you are going, where you want to be, and what the possibilities are for success. It may be time to re-think how you view the organization and its purpose. It may be time to look at your employees as more than names on a schedule but rather essential ingredients in an organization ready to act rather than react, filled with excitement, and charged with ideas and solutions. Learning organizations provide the structure for this to occur.
If, in fact, the theory that you are only as strong as your weakest link is true, then doesn’t it make sense to ensure all those links are positioned to reach their potential? If an organization, in this case, a restaurant, is committed to each of those links, with building their knowledge and skills, with developing individual and group potential, then why wouldn’t the best seek to be part of that? If, in fact, an organization where this learning model is core to its culture is better positioned to reach success at various levels, then why wouldn’t a restaurant focus on building this structure? Creating a learning organization takes time and effort, and yes – a level of investment, but those that do are far better positioned to reach their goals. Consider this for your restaurant:
 CREATE THE STORY AND BELIEF STRUCTURE:
Great learning organizations begin with a history and purpose worth sharing. When this is present, the organization is set for cultural strength. When the employee and the guest understand and align with the story and the purpose, then they are positioned to be ambassadors. What is your restaurant story? Shouldn’t this help to define everything about the operation? What are your beliefs, your stakes in the ground? These beliefs will help to define what needs to be learned and how to express that through food and service.
 REAL ORIENTATION:
Learning organizations teach and encourage the accumulation of knowledge and skill from day one. Are you using your orientation process effectively? Have you accepted orientation as simply a walk-through of the physical property, introduction to the players, and review of the menu, policies, standards, and procedures? This is how restaurants have defined that “first day or two” in the past – so why change?
What the orientation can become is setting the stage and expectations for personal growth. Finding out what the new employee envisions for themselves in the future, what their personal and professional goals are, and then starting the process of building a roadmap to get there.
 TEACH, DON’T JUST TRAIN:
“Do it this way” may seem sufficient when it comes to training but teaching your cooks or service staff “why” creates a level of understanding that leads to competence that is hard to beat. Knowing the history of a dish, the science behind the process, the way that grapes were grown, the terroir impact, the fermentation process, or the affinage for cheese will position the employee to know how to cook, recommend, or serve truly. This is something that employees will relish, and guests will support with return business.
 IN-SERVICE LEARNING:
When I ask restaurant managers if they meet with their employees, they usually say “yes.” When asked what they talk about, it is usually – tonight’s features, station assignments, what is in short supply, and maybe an important guest with a reservation. Why not use these gatherings as an opportunity to create learning opportunities? Tastings, discussion about a particular vineyard and its approach, how cheeses are made, demonstrations on proper fish filleting, or how caramelization brings out the umami in an ingredient are perfect meeting discussions. Every opportunity to teach and learn should be considered incredibly valuable in an organization committed to learning and growing.
 MENTORING AND PERSONAL GROWTH:
Look beyond the obvious assignment of an employee to a station and consider them evolving gems with a career in the restaurant business ahead of them. How can you nurture that and set them on the right course? You likely had a mentor to help, now is the time to give back. When employees know you are vested in their future, then, they will line up to choose you over another property.
 SHARING, BEING TRANSPARENT:
Learning organizations are transparent organizations. Teach employees about the business side. Share financials and financial challenges. Show them invoices and what things cost. Talk about how expensive waste can be and how restaurants look at a profit in terms of pennies on the dollar. Show them what it means when a tray of dishes hits the floor. The more they know, the more they can help. Show them what they need to know to do a job like yours!
 CELEBRATE LEARNING:
Make learning and growth part of the annual employee evaluation. “What have you learned over the past year, and what have you invested in your personal growth as a cook, server, bartender, or restaurant employee? When those learning moments take place, celebrate them. Provide certificates of completion – something they can add to their resume portfolio, post their learning initiatives in employee newsletters or blogs, add their accomplishment to your employee bulletin board, and share it on your social media platform for all to see.
Learning organizations are healthy organizations that view their employees as the most important asset in their arsenal. Knowledge is power.