An MBA Thanksgiving

A holiday feast for 24 is the home cook's biggest management problem. We call in the consultants.

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Wall Street Journal Online

As a vice president at Sutter Health, a big California hospital network, Ellen Meier has to deal with 500 Bay Area doctors and more than 40,000 employees. But that’s not what is keeping the 53-year-old M.B.A. up at night these days: It’s Thanksgiving.

She’s still not over the time she accidentally served still-raw turkey to her 10 guests. “We go completely dysfunctional,” she says. “It’s so stressful, and by the time you sit down to eat, your stomach hurts and you’re not hungry.”

This Thursday, home chefs all across America will tackle the most complicated meal of the year. From selecting the lineup of side dishes to devising a seating plan that separates your bickering cousins, pulling together a successful Thanksgiving dinner requires purchasing decisions, project-leadership skills and a dash of crisis management. In short, it’s a time of year when the family home is essentially turned into a business.

So we decided to take a page from companies that struggle with their own problems of just-in-time delivery and resource allocation – and call in the management consultants. We went to five consulting firms and asked them to re-engineer our Thanksgiving dinner. Their assignment: Develop a step-by-step game plan, starting this weekend and concluding with dinner at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, for a meal that would satisfy 24 guests without stressing out the host. Our ground rules left no part of the ritual off-limits, not even the cranberry sauce.

When the project reports arrived – some in PowerPoint format, of course – they were full of consulting-world buzzwords. They even offered some useful advice. One firm, for instance, identified a little-noticed Thanksgiving troublemaker: green beans, a B-list side dish that can clog up the kitchen assembly line. They cracked that problem using the “innovation fulcrum,” a concept that the consultants say has helped fuel strong profit margins at Irvine, Calif., fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger. PricewaterhouseCoopers even came up with a “burner theorem” to optimize the number of side dishes.

Another firm recommended we borrow management strategies from Southwest Airlines (specifically, the way it empowers flight attendants) to squeeze productivity out of family members helping in the kitchen.

And then there was the advice feared by employees across corporate America whenever consultants arrive: Downsize. More than one of our firms told us to hand out pink slips to guests whose performance at previous holidays failed to meet expectations.

Strategic planning, the key type of advice we sought for Thanksgiving, is the fastest-growing segment of the consulting business. But overall growth in the industry has slowed in recent years, largely because of weakness in information-technology consulting: Total revenues were an estimated $197.8 billion in 2004, up 1.4% from the previous year, according to research firm Kennedy Information.

One of the industry’s biggest catchphrases right now is “complexity reduction.” For corporations, that often involves identifying non-core functions and then outsourcing them to specialists, like the booming call-center industry in India. That was also the biggest theme in the consultants’ recommendations for Thanksgiving. For instance, several companies advised focusing on the turkey and outsourcing the mincemeat pie to a guest.

Another buzzword concept: identifying “strategic intent,” or uncovering your real goals. In other words, figuring out what you want most out of your holiday. For Katzenbach Partners, a New York firm founded by former McKinsey consultants,which meant that careful preparation of an heirloom turkey might be the key to happiness for a family of foodies, while a host with dysfunctional relatives would be advised to concentrate on “social network analysis.” From the firm’s presentation: “If the value proposition for each of your stakeholders isn’t crystal clear, ask them directly.”

Below, a smorgasbord of the consultants’ ideas.

Bain & Co.
Bain, one of the largest management consulting firms, began our case the way it often does, with market research: in this case, a survey of 280 Bain employees asking for the biggest headaches, and most crucial components, of Thanksgiving. The central discovery? The turkey, stuffing and gravy are the dishes guests most want to have home-cooked – so outsource, or guest-source, the rest.

Bain assigned our case to Mark Gottfredson, global head of performance improvement, whose specialty includes complexity reduction. He compared Thanksgiving dishes to stock-keeping units, or SKUs, retail-industry lingo for individual products offered. “As companies innovate over time, more SKUs get on their menu, and there’s very little mechanism for them to come out,” he says. But more SKUs mean more complexity – and more costs. It’s easily solved, Mr. Gottfredson says, by applying the 80-20 rule: focus on the 20% of things that drive 80% of the value.

For Thanksgiving, this comes down to cooking your “core product line” – turkey, stuffing, gravy. That’s what In-N-Out Burger does: It has only four types of items on its menu. Consultants call that the “innovation fulcrum” – enough products to satisfy customers without creating complexity. In-N-Out has expanded sales an estimated 9.2% in 2003, twice the normal growth rate for fast-food companies, according to Bain. Mr. Gottfredson cites the fast-food company in a Harvard Business Review article he coauthored. In-N-Out says it wasn’t contacted for the article and didn’t supply the sales figure.

Eliminating or outsourcing dishes also can increase your Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE), which measures how much of your available equipment is being used. According to Mr. Gottfredson, the truly industrious home chef might make a matrix of each homemade dish, its cooking time and when you need it finished, and then use that to decide in what order you should cook your dishes.

Managing your guests is central to the plan from PricewaterhouseCoopers, a large firm that provides tax and auditing services along with strategic advice. It begins with downsizing: Don’t invite family members known as troublemakers simply out of guilt or obligation. It may be hard, but it’s important to just bite the bullet and get over it, says Joe Duffy, the U.S. practice leader for performance improvement. (The firm’s PowerPoint submission included an imitation food pyramid, where “troublesome guests and relations” replace fat and sugars – the avoid-or-use-sparingly category.) Mr. Duffy also presented a Guest-Capacity Theorem: Don’t exceed either the number of usable chairs, or the amount of usable table space – contiguous table space divided by 24 inches, the optimal amount per person.

Tell your invitees that if they want a dish you don’t plan to cook – say, pickled squash – they should bring it themselves. And remind them that they have to bring not just the deliverable, as business language would call the pickled squash, but the necessary “capacity” for you to keep and serve it. “If the deliverable is Aunt Millie bringing lemon pie,” Mr. Duffy says, “does she clearly understand it needs to come, and that if it needs refrigeration, bring a cooler with ice?”

Still, PricewaterhouseCoopers emphasizes that, like any company with multiple divisions or locations, you need a risk-management strategy in case your supplier, Aunt Millie, falls through.

The Boswell Group
Kerry Sulkowicz was a practicing psychiatrist before he founded the Boswell Group, which applies psychoanalysis to businesses and their leaders, often family businesses. At Thanksgiving, “mom,” as he calls the chef, needs to take a cue from the stereotypical “dad”: Be a bit more controlling. (In contrast, he says, he often advises CEOs to be more maternal, nurturing and self-revealing.) “When you have a clear task at hand – in this case it’s getting the meal on the table – creativity is really counterproductive,” he says. So mom needs to take more of a military approach.

Still, mom shouldn’t let her authority turn into narcissism – which for Thanksgiving might mean substituting a non-traditional main dish for turkey. That decision is similar to a common mistake made by new CEOs when they make changes simply for the sake of change, says Mr. Sulkowicz: “Mom ought to ask herself, ‘Am I making the duck because I really believe everyone’s going to be happier with duck, or am I doing this because I want to come across as different?’ ”

Mr. Sulkowicz compares Thanksgiving to a family business, and notes that an estimated three-quarter of family businesses fail at the transition from the first generation to the second. So if your relatives don’t get along, he advises, don’t force them to try merely out of guilt or obligation – and don’t substitute endless fussing over logistics as a defense mechanism. Invite friends instead of family, or at least have some friends attend to buffer tension. Mr. Sulkowicz says he often tells family businesses to bring in outside managers.

Katzenbach Partners
Even the best-intentioned leader can cause problems by not delegating. That’s one of the organizational principles of the Katzenbach Thanksgiving. The firm suggests assigning your child to handle what restaurants call the “staff meal,” in this case dinners that will keep your family well-fed during the week of preparation. The goal: to eliminate “human resource bottlenecks,” which are limitations caused not by tasks but by people – in this case, you. Also watch out for “operational bottlenecks,” key points in manufacturing that disproportionately slow down delivery. A Thanksgiving analogue might be failing to begin defrosting a frozen turkey until Thursday morning.

Because your labor force is unpaid, you’ll have to motivate them – “pride-building,” in Katzenbach’s lingo. Give your helpers a chance to exercise their judgment and truly run their own tasks, says Niko Canner, co-founder and managing partner. That’s a contrast, for instance, to the overly scripted and inflexible routines typical of call centers. Pride-building is an approach familiar to Southwest Airlines, says Mr. Canner, which gives its crews “a great deal of latitude to create a quirky, fun experience for customers.”

The Monitor Group
Michael Kunst, global accounts manager at the Monitor Group, which is known for consulting on issues like competitiveness and designing distinctive brands, advises doing some market research before setting your Thanksgiving menu. The chef, Mr. Kunst says, should “segment” his or her market to see what different groups of guests want. Rather than trying to find lowest common denominators, create products – in this case dishes or activities – that please each of your audience groups.

Mr. Kunst breaks the Thanksgiving market into four segments: kids, men, women and older people, more-objective labels than “needs-based” ones like “lonely, depressed people.” The problem with needs-based labels is that there’s no good way, he points out, to identify and therefore market to all “lonely, depressed people.”

Once you’ve defined your groups, answer some basic questions about what each segment wants, like a favorite dish or holiday activity. Ensuring that there’s something for every segment might mean having two small turkeys, one roasted and one deep-fried.

Finally, Mr. Kunst, a foodie who thinks cooking might be a good second career, has a tip that’s served him well at Thanksgiving: Buy turkey wings and thighs and cook your gravy on Wednesday night. Gravy is critical to the meal, but it’s time-consuming and distracting to worry about at the last minute. “Like with Coke’s secret ingredient and much like in any professional restaurant, recipe and sauce production needs to be in your, the CEO’s, hands,” he says. “Don’t take this lightly: A so-so gravy versus a blow-away gravy can make all the difference in your product perception.”

Read the management consultants’ complete Thanksgiving recommendations:

“Focus on the essentials”
Bain & Co.

“Troublesome guests should be avoided (Plus, the warming tray corollary)”

“There is no shame in outsourcing”
Katzenbach Partners LLC

“Mom as client”
Boswell Group

“Determine your ‘definition of victory'”
Monitor Group

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