Cognitive Ergonomics for Foodservice Operations

Menu evolution, specifically in the form of diversification and customization, means the front of the house will continue to send larger amounts of information back to the already bustling commercial kitchen. As a result it is becoming simultaneously more difficult and critical for foodservice operators across all segments to manage and analyze how staff members leverage the information to ensure customer hospitality and generate a profit.

To complicate matters a bit, we must not forget the differences that exist between the different employee populations in restaurants today. It used to be that a restaurant was a place where younger people went to work and, generally speaking, most everyone spoke the same language. Today's restaurant workforce is multigenerational and multilingual.

For all these factors, and others too numerous to cover here, cognitive ergonomics — the study of how humans process information — will continue to play a greater role in foodservice design in the years to come.

When designing kitchens we designers occasionally try to address any imaginable challenge an employee may encounter. The net result of these efforts is that designers create workstations that look more like airplane cockpits than actual commercial kitchens. If foodservice employees get overrun with information, it will likely impede their ability to execute on the brand's promise.

So the entire design team — including operators, consultants, dealers, factories and the like — needs to truly understand how to optimize the end users' information processing capacities, and consider that simplicity sometimes is a great feature of a concept. Perhaps The Pareto Principle is appropriate here. Is there an option that provides 80 percent of the benefit for 20 percent of the cost that is simple for the employee to use?

One way to ensure a positive outcome is to apply the industrial engineering principle of process mapping. This technique, which tracks and maps the information flow, usually provides great insights on how the employees use the information they receive and can uncover any operational issues relating to the data. In other words, just go with the information flow! Follow the data into the kitchen and answer the following questions: Who gets it? What do they do with it? How does it synchronize with all the activities in the kitchen?

Not having the right component synchronization typically affects food quality or customer service. Even great technology, if applied in the wrong way, will not prevent these issues from happening. Let's not forget the countless other components that contribute to the overall dynamics of a kitchen and impact an employee's ability to optimize the application of technology. Factors such as work-station design and adjacencies, equipment platforms, menu offering and promotions, among others, can affect the overall efficiency of any kitchen.

We must aspire to maximize the crew-centric nature of any design to facilitate the employees' jobs and, in order to do this, ergonomics must be a factor. Without making it easier for the crew, the customer experience is at risk.

As a result, when it comes to managing data that flows into the kitchen, the goal should be to get the right information in the right place at the right time. Delivering on these two goals will result in the most optimum design; one that delivers the highest profitability and customer hospitality experience.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from Juan Martinez's blog "Foodservice By Design."