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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 23:23 GMT
Consultants talking turkey

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Thanksgiving dinner
Don't substitute duck for turkey, just for the hell of it

Here's a clever thing published recently by the Wall Street Journal (by which I mean the generous American broadsheet edition, not the mean shrunken tabloid that readers outside North America have now been left with).

The paper gave several top management consultancies the year's trickiest strategic problem: how to re-engineer Thanksgiving dinner.

Just in time for our 25 December, defying several layers of intellectual property restrictions, here is my version of their version of how to deal with the year's most traumatic meal, and it throws some light not only on the turkey, but on the mentality of the management boffins as well. (My comments are in italics.)

Bain and Company

Bain began with market research: a questionnaire sent to 280 employees.

Their findings: The meal is distinguished by the quality of the home cooking of the turkey, stuffing and gravy (an American obsession, this gravy).

So outsource the rest or get the guests to bring it. (Relying on public opinion surveys can be dangerous, of course; survey may lie. Surely it's the trimmings (and incredible potatoes) that really impress diners, when the chips are down?)

Bain, though, insists that the "core product line" of the feast is the bird and the gravy (and quotes the example of a triumphant fast food chain with only four types of times on the menu. Bain also recommends outsourcing or outguesting subsidiary dishes to increase Overall Equipment Efficiency, OEE. (In typical consultancy style, this is saying the first proposal all over again, and putting it In Capital Letters, to give the firm a title to its "intellectual" property.)


The consultants with the stupid name concentrate on the guests, not the turkey.

Thanksgiving dinner for US soldiers in Mosul, Iraq
Don't invite more guests than you have usable chairs

Don't invite known troublemakers, says the firm sternly.

Their man in charge of the project, the US Practice Leader for Performance Improvement, advises hosts to follow a Guest-Capacity Theorem, GCT. (Beware of Capital Letters.)

Don't invite more guests than you have usable chairs.

Don't give diners less that 24 inches of table space each. (How they like to state the obvious, these consultants.)

In a departure from normal seasonal goodwill, these efficiency experts also urge hosts to tell guests who want a special side dish to bring it themselves. (I know hotels who do customer satisfaction like that)

The Boswell Group

The company, which specialises in applying psychology to business, says that at turkey time, the chef, or "mum" should take on the attributes of a stereotypical "dad" says Boswell.

Be boss.

Creativity at this time is counterproductive.

Be militaristic.

And don't do change for the sake of change, as so many newly promoted bosses do.

Don't substitute duck for turkey, just for the hell of it. (At last a piece of true management insight!).

Kerry Sulkowicz of Boswell compares The Meal (my caps) to family businesses; three-quarters of them fail when the founding generation attempts to hand over to the second.

So if relations don't get along, leave them out-or include friends to reduce the tension. (All this Boswell is sound, I'd say.)

Katzenbach Partners

The New York group of ex-McKinsey people picks delegation as its way of putting the turkey on the table.

Woman doing the washing up
... and never mind the dishes.

Let the kids do the "staff meals", the food required for everyone in the run up to the big day.

Avoid "human resource bottlenecks" (lowercase, this time) by (for example) getting the turkey out to defrost in time.

And give your team members their own freedom: They need motivating, just as the crews on the planes of Southwest Airlines are free to create a quirky, fun experience for customers. (Stewardesses on Southwest used to hide in the overhead bins and pop out to surprise passengers. But at Christmas, this sort of thing should surely be left to what Sir John Betjeman used to call "funny uncles"?)

The Monitor Group

The specialists in distinctive brands really make a meal of it.

Create products, that is food, that please each of the groups sitting down at the dinner table, says Monitor's Michael Kunst, artfully.

Eschewing "needs based" labels such as "Lonely depressed people", Mr Kunst breaks the Thanksgiving market into four distinct real-life groups.

They are (wait for it) kids, men women and older people.

How does this enlightenment help us plan Christmas?

Well, with the groups defined you can think about pleasing each one with food and activities.

It might mean having two smaller turkeys, for example, one roasted and the other fried. (Will we in Britain ever go over to frying our turkey? It's the way to produce a really succulent bird for the table, and it's big in the American South. But beware: you need an oil drum for the frying, protective clothing, and It Has To Be Done Outside, my caps.)

Mr Kunst also says gravy is too time consuming to worry about at the last minute, so do it in advance.

Like Coke's secret ingredient, he says, the recipe and the production have to be in the chief executive's hands.

And in true consultant style, he adds: "A so-so gravy versus a blow-away gravy can make all the difference in your product perception."

And do you know, not one of these high powered consultants mentions the washing up?

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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