World-Class (Bar) Basics

Posted on 4th April, 2014 in Delivery

Whatever the local context and your personal taste in bars and pubs, defining a good experience is probably not going to be rocket science – drinks you enjoy (at an acceptable price), served quickly in an environment you like.  The concept of ‘nailing the basics’ has been a part of my life for a long time, from repeating multiplication tables as the son of a teacher (this might explain a lot to those who know me!), practicing drill as an 18 year old Army recruit (pretty mindless at the time however, much though it pains me to admit it Sergeant X, I do get the point now), learning checklists and standard operating procedures as a fighter pilot (kind of useful) and repeated practice of formation aerobatics as a Red Arrows pilot, to more recent analysis of complex strategic problems, coaching colleagues in client delivery, and ‘cutting through the noise’ in both client and our own businesses.  However it is only with experience and reflection time that I am starting to understand just how beneficial it can be to focus on the basics; ignore them at your peril.

I have long been of the opinion that a majority of issues can be drilled down to a few fairly simple root causes and priorities.  I am unconvinced that around 2000 years’ experience  of working together in bigger teams (often armies until more recently), and probably a couple of hundred years of study have changed much in the core timeless drivers of leadership, team and organisational effectiveness (that is not to equate simple to understand with easy to implement – far from it).  And I am not the only person who thinks like this.  When (now Sir) Stuart Rose took over at Marks & Spencer, he found an organisation with a fragmented operational structure, mired in ‘paralysis by analysis’.  Rose cancelled 21 out of 31 strategic initiatives without any research and drew a line under an ‘engagement programme’ run by a high-profile academic.  His core message was ‘back to basics’:  “I am a shopkeeper; we buy for one pound and sell for two (hopefully)”.  He brought simplicity and clarity with only 3 priorities: product, service and store environment.  Ian McGeechan (world-class rugby coach for the non-believers) is another proponent: “you have to understand the things which will make the difference between and losing and be better than anyone else in the world at those things; it’s all about world-class basics.”

So how does this relate to bar service?

In the part of SW London where I live, there are quite a few bars and pubs, 3 of note in this context.  The first is a national brand which has the prime riverfront terrace location – packed every day when the weather is half decent.  One would have to say that this establishment is testament to the power and truth of ‘location, location, location’.  Another way of putting it is that the business model is a victory of location over service.  If one set out to deliberately systemise a consistently poor service model, it would be difficult to better their achievement.  However I assume that the annual profit, predicated on getting some decent weather at some point during the year, offers no incentive to do anything about the service.

The second example is another high street brand in a beautiful building set back from the river.  The food and service is above average for that type of establishment, however when it’s busy (reasonably predictable cycle), they are consistently under-staffed.  I have never really got this.  If bar staff are on c£6ph and an alcoholic drink costs around the same (we are talking SW London!) on let’s say a 50% margin, then in an hour, a bar person only needs to serve 2 drinks which would not otherwise have been served.  Given a waiting time of more than 5 minutes when busy (one might predict the weekend for instance), you probably don’t need an MBA in operations to see that more staff would make more profit.  So 2 potentially great bars completely fail to leverage their advantages.  And then there is a little place called BeAtOne opened by someone who clearly never got the ‘location, location, location’ message – part of a chain of cocktail bars in London, often not in the most obvious prime locations, which are regularly packed.

Why so?

In my mind, it boils down to 3 things:

  • It’s a cocktail bar but it’s not pretentious – good drinks at a sensible price for which you don’t need to wait 10 minutes whilst the barman pretends he is Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’ in an attempt to impress you, or more likely your partner, who is actually even more thirsty than you are
  • Lots of overtly friendly bar staff – quick service from someone who proactively engages with you
  • Great (non-niche) music which will appeal to a fairly wide swathe of people who like to socialise and party

The most interesting thing about this list is that if you were to set out to design a bar with a blank sheet of paper, surely these are the sort of things which would spring to mind.  And yet, the average service experience is so bad that if you did no more than get those things right, you would instantly differentiate from 90% of your competitors (make that 99.9% if you are a bank, or a telecoms or utility provider).  It’s all about world-class basics…

In fact, the benefits of nailing the basics go even further.  Looking back at my military aviation career, I can now see that if, on occasion, we might have sometimes done some ‘clever’ stuff, we were only ever able to do that because we had the basics right.  Repeated practice of multiplication tables, formation aerobatics or client presentations do not make you inflexible or robotic; they are what make you flexible.  They free your brainpower up to do the ‘clever’ stuff.  I recently saw some retrospective academic justification for this line of thinking in ‘Brain Rules’ by John Medina.  Medina, a highly respected brain scientist, describes 2 powerful features of the brain: a database in which to store a fund of knowledge and the ability to improvise off that database.  The improvisation (flexibility or the ‘clever’ stuff) only works if the database (the basics) is nailed down.  Free play without core competencies is likely to be disastrous.  It’s all about world-class basics…

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