Let’s Eat

The doors for lunch opened at noon. We were standing outside in a very crowded hallway, waiting to get in. When the doors opened, there were dozens of volunteers waving flags and welcoming us. We quickly found a table and sat down.

18361834573_ae35442e14_zIt was a reasonably formal lunch. There were cloth napkins and bread plates and dessert forks. The salads were already on the table, and as soon as everyone was seated, we began eating. There were ten people seated at our round table. As I looked around, I noticed that the room was set up with 15 tables across and five tables deep. Behind that was a wide aisle, and then three more identical sections. That’s enough seating for 3,000 people.

As soon as we finished our salads, the plates disappeared. Entrees came next: grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, and a vegetable medley. A few people asked for — and immediately received — vegetarian or gluten-free alternatives.

It’s fun to watch people’s table manners in situations like this. You don’t eat until everyone at the table has been served. The rolls and butter (and, really, everything else) is passed to the right. Your glasses are on the right. Your bread plate is on the left. Salt and pepper get passed together. The other diners didn’t necessarily know the rules, but the servers all did. Always serve from the left, and clear from the right.

Once again, the plates disappeared as soon as we put down our forks. Coffee was served. Desserts were already on the table. Just as we finished dessert, the speaker took the stage and the program began. It was 12:30.

Let’s recap: this is a sit-down, three course lunch for 3,000 people that was served and cleared in half an hour. The food was delicious (and hot). The service was impeccable. The entire experience was top notch. The next morning, I saw the manager working out details for that day’s lunch. I thanked him for his work and told him how impressed I was. “That’s nothing,” he replied. “We do this every week.” He told me that they had done similar meals with up to 8,000 people. “THAT,” he said, “is a challenge.”

So what are the logistics that go into something like this? How do they pull off this impossible feat of feeding 3,000 people in 30 minutes? Over the course of the three days we were there, I paid attention. Here’s how they do it:

Step One: Standardize. It doesn’t matter where you sit. It doesn’t matter what you want. Everyone gets the same thing. If we’re having chicken and mashed potatoes, everyone is getting chicken and mashed potatoes (or the one alternative dish for special diets). There’s one salad dressing choice: you can have salad dressing or not have it. What would you like to drink? There’s iced tea and water on the table, and we’ll serve coffee with dessert. Those are your choices.

Step Two: Everyone has a Job. Teams of servers worked together on groups of tables. Watch the tables and clear the salads as soon as they’re done. Bring out the entrees and uncover them. Serve entire tables quickly. Everyone knows what they’re responsible for, and everyone works together to make sure the job gets done as quickly as possible.

Step Three: Alleviate the Bottlenecks. Those volunteers who were waving flags weren’t just trying to be friendly. They knew that the biggest bottleneck to a quick, efficient lunch is getting people to pick a table and sit down. Their job was to get people into their seats as quickly as possible.

Step Four: Maximize Efficiency. When the trays come out from the kitchen, they’re piled high with covered entrees. One person uncovers them while another clears salad plates and serves entrees. The same trays go back to the kitchen with dirty dishes on them. The whole thing happens in one fluid, choreographed motion. The same thing happens when the entrees are cleared and the coffee is served.

Step Five: Anticipate Problems and Resolve them Quickly. Someone dropped a plate. There’s another one right here. We need another vegan option. It’s right there on the tray. A water glass was knocked over. It was immediately cleaned up. Those things are going to happen. We can’t let them derail the whole event.

Of course, in educational technology, we have our own impossible feats. At the moment, I’m responsible for a technology infrastructure that includes 6,000 computers and tablets, more than 100 printers, about 600 network devices, 250 projectors and interactive whiteboards, and dozens of software applications. My team of five manages mission-critical technologies that handle everything from taking attendance to supporting instruction to selling lunch.

If we ran schools like a business, I could easily justify a staff of 25 people to manage this infrastructure in a reactive way. We’re not talking about high-tech companies here with cutting edge technologies requiring proactive support. Regular mid-sized companies generally have an IT staff member for every 250-300 devices.

My own technology plan, which is now nearly three years old, called for IT staffing levels at 25% of industry norms. That plan included three more people than I have right now, and it anticipated that we would have 1,000 fewer devices. But I’m not complaining. We have it covered. While it would be very bad to lose people, I’m not asking for additional staffing. How do we do it?

Step One: Standardize. For the past 15 years, we have chosen a single desktop computer and a single laptop model. That’s what we buy. Everyone has the same thing. We get really good at supporting that one thing. Every year, we buy about a thousand laptops. They’re all exactly the same. That saves us an enormous amount of time.

Step Two: Everyone Has a Job. The team is divided geographically, but each of my team members also has specializations. If you’re having a problem with a printer or copier, Ryan is the go-to guy. If there’s an issue with a projector or Smart Board, Rick is your man. They rely on one another when they get in over their heads.

Step Three: Alleviate the Bottlenecks. We try to avoid the tasks that take a lot of time without much benefit. For example, it might take hours to diagnose a malware problem and clean up a computer. It’s easier in many cases to re-image the computer, loading a fresh copy of Windows and the applications on it. In many cases, we push configuration changes, updates, and other routine tasks to the computers when they’re idle during the day. That minimizes the amount of repetitive work we have to do on each computer.

Step Four: Maximize Efficiency. The biggest waste of time for us is moving people around. With eight buildings and three technicians, there’s always a problem somewhere where we don’t have any people. The key is to visit each building each day, but also to know what that building needs before we get there. Centralized help ticket management plays a big role in that. The techs also use remote diagnostics to try to resolve problems quickly, or at least determine the causes of trouble, before venturing out to the building.

Step Five: Anticipate Problems and Resolve them Quickly. We know the busiest days of the year for us are the first three days the teachers are back in August. We plan ahead for that. We know what they’re going to need, and we try to provide that extra help or network cable or power strip before they even know they need it. We monitor network activity and frequently know when computers are having problems even before the teachers and students do. There are many many times each week when we see problems and resolve them before anyone even knows what’s happening.

An efficient operation is fun to watch, whether it’s in the education business or the hospitality area. One of the benefits of technology is that it’s supposed to help us take care of low-level, repetitive tasks more easily. That allows us to get more work done, requiring higher-level thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills, without increasing staff.

Maybe we could apply some of these lessons to classroom instruction, too. What could we do with the cognitive surplus if the routine aspects of teaching and learning were handled more efficiently?

Photo credit: me.