What we can learn from the French kitchen for project management. And what it has to do with Agile and Lean.
«Mis en place» is French and means «provisioning».
It comes from the hospitality industry and in restaurants refers to setting the tables. In the kitchen, it means to first provide and prepare the necessary ingredients and spices so that they can be «cooked» smoothly.
For me, as a novice cook, «mis en place» opened the door to cooking in the first place: If all the ingredients are ready, in the right condition and with the right weight, the preparation is simplified simply because I can concentrate fully on the process itself.
If, on the other hand, I already fail with the preparation of the ingredients, I don’t even need to start with the preparation, because it would definitely fail.
So the risk of unexpectedly missing necessary resources in the middle of the cooking action to achieve a certain goal is controlled from the very beginning.
And there are few things more frustrating than standing in front of an abandoned cooking project with a growing hunger and justified frustration!
Mis en place is therefore a method that allows cooking projects to be implemented with reduced risk and more effectively.
What can we learn from mis en place for project management in general?
First of all, mis en place must always refer to a specific context.
In a restaurant it can be the table setting or in cooking it can be the work preparation in the kitchen.
While the Japanese 5S1 refers to the general preparation of the workplace or workshop, here it is about the specific preparation of a cooking project – or the concretization of the whole working day.
In terms of a project, it is about defining the project, ideally made explicit in the form of a project charter or project mission. The workplace, the working environment of the project must therefore first be clearly defined.
This also includes the tools required for communication, as well as the design of the communication itself, for example, if the project is to be carried out remotely with virtual teams.
This also includes the list of stakeholders, i.e., the people who have an influence on the success of the project and in which role they (can/should) participate.
These measures define the project context and systematically delimit it from the environment.
Mis en place means for project management that all known conditions for success should be provided in advance.
All these measures are also necessary in agile project management.
However, thinking ahead is not the strength of agile methods: the idea is rather to make decisions at the latest when you know exactly why2.
Agile methods decide as late as possible
Since in agile projects it is not clearly defined at the beginning what exactly the result will look like, this point in time – knowing exactly why an ingredient is needed – will regularly come very late3.
This is because the concrete project outcome emerges gradually – from vision to concrete product through the collaborative thinking that accompanies the project development process.
By the way, the agile approach doesn’t seem to be suitable for cooking; you usually want to know what (and when) you’re going to eat right from the start.
If someone is to be cooked in an agile way, I would take that with a grain of salt – if anything comes out of it to serve.
Mis en place requires that I know from the beginning exactly what ingredients (resources) I need and that I can provide them on time. So the goal should be fixed from the beginning and the resources I need to achieve it.
In agile project management according to Scrum, I also prepare the ingredients, but only for a limited, manageable period of time, for a sprint.
But at least the activities I need in any case to complete the project, I must also have in mind from the beginning. So Mis en place means keeping an eye on project completion even in agile projects and making provisions for it.
Otherwise, there is a risk that I will not be able to serve the dish at all because I have not considered that it also has to be operated or that official approval is still required.
Even with mis en place, the ingredients are specifically prepared in advance, i.e., they are shaped, cleaned, cut, weighed or pickled.
Accordingly, arrangements must be made to ensure that external resources are available, appropriate NDAs and contracts are in place in a timely manner, availabilities and planned absences (vacations) are clarified in a timely manner.
Mis en place is in line with the idea of Just in Time, namely that the specific ingredients are ready exactly when they are needed.
The lead time to the actual production is shortened by mis en place to what is actually necessary.
Mis en place also allows, with proper coordination, a clean separation of tasks, since the preparation of ingredients and the preparation can be done by different people.
Mis en place means not only that I know where I want to go (what I want to cook) from the beginning, but that I also have a recipe from the beginning that describes exactly what ingredients and what steps will get me there.
Mis en place is therefore suitable for tasks that can be planned through, where I expect few procedural deviations and risks.
If, on the other hand, I have a low degree of plannability, it is difficult for me to specifically name the necessary ingredients.
In this case, the best I can do is get an overview of the available resources so that I know where and how to proceed in the event of adversity. (Methodologically, this can again be supported by real options theory).
By anticipating dependencies, the actual cooking process can proceed smoothly and without disruption: A flow, as core goal of Lean Management [^flow].
Although mis en place refers to work preparation in cooking, we can learn much from it when preparing and managing a project.
While in cooking the desired dish, the kitchen and the work equipment are usually already explicitly defined, in project management this has to be done actively at the beginning.
Only such a project definition, ideally as an explicitly communicated project assignment, generates the systemic effectiveness of a project.
Defining the necessary components as the resources required to achieve the goal clarifies the project requirements at an early stage and reduces the subsequent failure of a project.
The actual project execution benefits from this preparation and can be handled with optimized resource utilization and shortened lead time.
The inception phase of the «Disciplined Agile Delivery» approach4 serves the same purpose as mis en place: with the goal in mind, projects can be implemented more safely and predictably.
With mis en place, both a just in time for a given project and a 5S for optimal workplace design are implemented.
Agile project management contradicts the mis en place principle when the focus is unilaterally on functional requirements and non–functional requirements and project completion are not planned for from the beginning.
Disciplined Agile Delivery takes care of this, as mis en place should be ensured already in the inception phase.
And with reference to 5S, just in time and flow, «mis en place» implements three central concepts of lean management in the kitchen at once.
5S refers to the Japanese method for designing the workplace. The 5S stand for: 5S/5C: Seiri = Sort (clean out), Seiton = Put in order (configure), Seiso = Shine (clean & check), Seiketsu = Standardize (conformity), Shitsuke = Persevere or self–discipline (habit & practice). ↩︎
Often it even comes too late, because compliance– or safety–related measures cannot be made up in a meaningful way. ↩︎