Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Day at elBulli



I'm looking at my copy of A Day at elBulli, a very thick book by Ferran Adrià which gives a minute-by-minute account of a typical day at the restaurant elBulli. I don't suppose that I get this book down from the shelf more than once a year, but I think more than any other book it was this one which convinced me that software development has a lot more in common with cooking than with architecture.

elBulli was a rather unusual restaurant. (It closed in 2011.) It opened for only 160 days a year, summer through to winter, serving one sitting of 50 guests each day. The kitchen staff of about 40 prepared a fixed "tasting menu" of around 30 miniature dishes for each guest, served by a front-of-house staff of about 25. (Although tiny, each dish generally took more effort to prepare than most main courses in most restaurants. Only 50 customers a day sounds easy. Think of 1500 complex main-courses a day and you have a better idea how much effort was involved.)

They served around 8000 guests a year, but they got many, many more requests for reservations. Around 2 million. And yet they only charged around €200 per head. Clearly they could have charged much more; clearly the main purpose was not to make money, but rather to research new recipes and techniques. It was a research restaurant. Who would have thought such a thing was possible?

When I first read the minute-by-minute descriptions in the book, I was reminded somehow of happy experiences working in an Extreme Programming development team. Everyone doing hands-on work to some extent, everyone conscious of working together to make something, always working with one eye on the clock. I was also struck by the discipline, similar to XP:

  • Simple, direct organisation, with stand-up meetings at the start and end of the day.

  • Clear up as you go. Even though it's late and everyone is tired, everything is left neat and tidy at the end of the day, ready for a fresh start tomorrow.

  • Process, timing and organisation are everything. But the physical artifacts used to track progress are very simple: order-sheets, plans for mise-en-place, shopping lists.

What lessons can software developers learn by looking at a restaurant like this? First maybe that they both have customers, and the customer's experience in both cases has very little to do with the essential nature of producing that experience. What does the customer see? Only the front-of-house.

There are front-of-house staff and kitchen staff. Though the kitchen is the heart (without the kitchen there is nothing) most guests don't see it, and know almost nothing about the production of their food. This certainly has echoes in software development. The customer is oblivious to what goes on behind the scenes, and the effort to make it work. But strangely, in software the front-of-house staff often set the terms for the kitchen staff despite having little hands-on knowledge about the production processes.

Another lesson is that process is key. It's all about process. But not the kind of stupid "big process" checklist in some binder somewhere that everyone ignores. No, the key is the precise minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour knowledge of how to actually do things the best way. Sometimes this is written down, but often not.

At elBulli, most kitchen staff did "process execution". A few, particularly Ferran Adrià himself, focused on process creation, figuring out what dishes to make and how best to make them. Every day inventing and perfecting processes, refining recipes and the techniques for making existing dishes. Experimenting with new ones. This is an obsession with process: hundreds of trials, failures, tweaks and variations to perfect the process to make each dish. And from the point of view of the customer, this long effort and many failures was completely hidden, though the final dishes could not be served without it.

The meta-idea here is to have complete control of process, a process even for creating processes. Now with software development, for all our claimed enthusiasm for process, are we really in the same league as these guys? I don't think so. We just don't see this kind of perfectionism very often, and when we do see it (for example in Extreme Programming) it is thought of as something odd and bizarre. Not like elBulli, a magnificent example of the art, which others admire, respect, and aspire to emulate.

Have a look at A Day at elBulli. It's worth considering: what if we applied that kind of attitude to software?

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