Carmen Berzatto—a.k.a the Bear—is born to be a chef. He’s spent many years working for five star restaurants around the world, raising to the top of his profession.
Then he has to drop everything and go back to Chicago, where his beloved brother Mike used to run the family joint Original Beef – a dirty little hole in the wall of a sandwich bar in a particularly rough neighborhood.
Mike was as charming as he was troubled. When he unexpectedly killed himself he left his kid brother with a big debt to the local mafia, as well as with the task of turning Original Beef around.
It seems just about hopeless. Most of the staff have long since accepted defeat. To them, it’s just a matter of time before Original Beef meets the same destiny as its previous owner.
Still Carmen sets about doing the only thing he knows how to; cooking as if his life depended on it, turning every dish into a work of art.
Initially most of the crew react with skepticism, if not with open hostility. Here they are minding their business, following the same old routine they always have. Who’s Mike’s kid brother to tell them they need to change!? The group dynamics is spiralling sharply downward.
As if that wasn’t enough, a health inspector threatens to close the place down; the sous-chef is selling cocaine, and the restaurant is hit by a drive-by shooting.
And worse than anything: Carmen is so caught up in events that he’s failing to notice the only two people who could potentially have become his allies; Sidney the ambitious young graduate from the American Culinary Institute, and Marcus the pastry maker in passionate pursuit of the perfect donut.
Sidney and Marcus would have been prepared to do anything for Carmen, had he just given them the time of day. But Carmen is helplessly sucked into the vortex of managing one disaster after another, so instead they become the first to abandon him.
While Carmen is fighting his loosing battle in Chicago, Rosalind Williams gets a phone call in Boston.
At first she thinks it’s a prank. MIT headhunters wants her to take on a leadership position at the prestigious institute. What’s weird with that is that she isn’t even an engineer, but a historian and a writer.
While something’s clearly fishy, she decides to take the job. If nothing else, it’ll make for an interesting experience, perhaps one to base her next book upon.
It turns out her intuition was right. Just as she’d signed on as dean of Students and Undergraduate Education, the MIT brass tasks her with executing a “change process”, which is really just a euphemism for sacking hundreds of administrative staff.
The context is this: Like most American universities of the era, MIT can’t cover its costs and is running deep in the red. It’s the mid-nineties and the general feeling is that higher education needs to reinvent itself in order to become more efficient. MIT being what it is, this translates into replacing humans with software.
The instigators of the change process has branded it “Reengineering”. The term is meant to frame the challenge as a technicality. If a problem lends itself to ‘reengineering’, it means there can be a clear-cut solution. If such a solution can be identified, implementing it is simply a matter of executive verve. And if it uproots the livelihood of individual co-workers, that’s simply collateral damage.
So armies of consultants are brought in and with brisk optimism, software behemoth SAP is picked to replace a patchwork of local IT-solutions, assuming it will result in great cost cuts. But the crusade soon meets with resistance and risk running out of steam.
Increasingly frustrated consultants then start blaming the ‘institutional culture’ at MIT for sabotaging the effort to usher in what’s new, which almost exclusively is framed in terms of new technology.
As a representative of management, Rosalind finds herself in a pickle. She needs to back the official line, even though she’s haunted by doubts.
It doesn’t seem right to her to frame the institutional culture as resistant to change. Not when MIT has a century long track-record of being at the centre of game-changing innovation.
It also doesn’t seem to make sense to wage war on the *institution* that is MIT, when this is exactly what a constant row of international guests visit Boston in order to try to emulate.
In the end, history proved the historian right. Reengineering departed with a whimper; after many years of ”change work”, its effects were almost entirely limited to the university wide adoption of SAP’s software.
One of the most important learnings that MIT took from the Reengineering campaign, had to do with how administrative staff was viewed. Going into the process, the assumption had been that they represented a fundamentally unproductive overhead, one that didn’t really add value and that should therefor be streamlined away with software.
Reengineering proved that assumption to be wrong. In terms of head-count, it had turned out to be a zero-sum game. Some clerical staff had indeed been fired, but their desks soon had to be manned by IT professionals instead.
More importantly, the process had also exposed a strong correlation between MIT’s success and its relatively high ratio of non-faculty staff. It had become clear that students flocked to the time honoured institution not just for its academic prestige, but also in quest of the intangible quality of community; an emergent phenomenon that was largely the result of broad and rich interactions with non-teaching staff.
For Williams—who indeed did go on to write a book about her experience—the process also raised an epistemological question.
Coming from a long line of prominent technologists, she had a fundamentally positive bias toward engineering as a productive approach to problem solving. What she learnt first-hand during her years at MIT however, was how counter-productive this same approach becomes when applied to a problem which by its very nature resists a clear-cut solution.
In her own words:
The big problems of the world—a list that commonly includes the fragility of public health systems, globally transmitted epidemics, international criminal networks, disappearing species, terrorism, the global arms trade, and the status of women (and nog just in science)—are far too big for engineers to solve by themselves. Engineers may make useful contributions, but they may also be less than useful if they are implicated in causing these problems in the first place, or if they seek tidy solutions where there are none.
The overarching problem for engineers today is to define a set of problems that is both significant and well suited to their skills.
A historian being taken hostage as middle manager in academia, and a tv-series about a restaurant crew going nowhere. The two stories are worlds apart, yet they meld in my mind.
Perhaps because I see them as yet another informative example of two types of failure; the kind that sets the stage for later success, and the other kind: the one which is the outcome of processes that should never have been set in motion in the first place.
Carmen in his scruffy little restaurant incarnates the principle of leading by example. He keeps sharing the tacit knowledge that is stored in his muscle memory; all the countless little habits and rituals he’s unconsciously developed over the years. Until it eventually dawns on the rest of the crew that it’s simply not his style to tell anyone what to do; that they’re free to follow him if they want to.
One after one, inevitably, they come around. Carmen makes them want to start doing things differently.
The fact that everything is going south anyway, is incidental; a turn of the plot to set the stage for coming triumphs (not to mention coming seasons).
In stark contrast, the management consultants brought in to ‘fix’ MIT couldn’t be more different than Carmen. They take on the job with a crystal clear idea about the results they want to achieve, but without a clear idea of how to sell their vision. They produce reams of expensive looking slide presentations, still the stupid people on the floor won’t get it.
I think these two examples do a great job of illustrating the difference between two fundamentally different approaches.
When you’re too set in your mind on achieving something, focusing exclusively on the product, the very focus will backfire. If everything that matters is the outcome, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
In contrast, if all you care about is to perfect your process, a great product will eventually follow effortlessly. (as anyone who ever learned a language knows). I feel there’s a deep zen-like poetry at play here, one which reveals the world to be a better place than it sometimes appears to be.