Operating Systems: The Answer to it all?

As I read Dr. Atul Gawande’s insightful article in the August 13 edition of The New Yorker that contrasts effective restaurant operating systems with the less effective systems he sees in health care, I was struck by my own unique perspective on this issue. Not only have I been professionally mentored by of one of the creators and implementers of The Cheesecake Factory’s operating systems, former Senior Vice President Michael Vucurevich, but also mentored in life and living by two retired physicians, my parents.

Dr. Gawande’s article raises interesting points of comparison, but fails to mention that The Cheesecake Factory has been committed to systems from its earliest existence, while the health care system he is analyzing is already a behemoth with a thousand heads and a thousand bodies.  When I was at The Cheesecake Factory, I worked closely with now COO David Gordon (he was a young senior manager and I was an even younger manager in training). From my first day, I was taught and shown systems, and not just how to do things using the systems, but why we used them.  Gordon and Vucurevich ensured that all the young managers developed the CCF vision and depth of knowledge to understand the positive outcomes possible with systems, contrasted with the negative outcomes that would result if we deviated from the systems. We were taught dedication and loyalty to the system above any loyalty to thoughts of our own brilliance. That particular culture bred such deep belief in systems and consequently our pay raises, promotions and career paths were tied to the wins resulting from following the systems.

The operational foundation that The Cheesecake Factory developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s gives it the stability to grow and to continue creating today. They implement and evolve the systems that caught Dr. Gawande’s attention through a never-ending process of evaluation and refinement. So, yes, I’m sure his comparison holds water, as he is an expert in his field, and a brilliant observer and writer. I add that the snapshot of CCF today is a result of their commitment to a culture of systems for over twenty years.

Today, Vucurevich is my business partner, and we are building another company with a disciplined commitment to systems and culture. The approach works, as evidenced by the success of Founding Farmers restaurant in Washington, D.C. It’s won many awards, and it’s the most-often-booked dining destination on OpenTable in the entire mid-Atlantic region for 20 months running now, four years after opening. We are surpassing sales forecasts on a regular basis. We can attribute nearly all of this success to our systems.

To this day, my parents talk to me about health care in America—the system they knew 30 years ago, and the system they see today. From my perspective, it’s clear that to save our health care system it takes a blend of Vucurevich’s and Gordon’s commitment to systems and culture, and my parents’ commitment to putting patients ahead of profits, combined with some capitalists willing to take the long view on ROI. That’s a recipe that could create some real results.

Dan Simons