What an SME can learn from a BBQ Competition

Occasionally you get an opportunity that you can’t say no to.  This was the case for me recently when I was asked if I was interested in being a judge at a BBQ competition.  This wasn’t any old local fry up, but a collection of the very best BBQ experts from New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Who can pass that opportunity up (besides my vegan partner!).

Fair to say the experience was awesome. At home I do take my BBQ cooking seriously, to the point where I experiment, improve and try and put on great experiences for our household and guests. I consider myself pretty good around some wood and coals, but what does good, no what does excellent actually look and taste like?

Because this was a hobby of mine, I had watched all the TV programmes, you tube videos, read books - gathering knowledge and information that I could.  But this all academic as I had never experienced world class in person.  So given my background, both professionally and personally, I was determined to learn a lot while tasting some delicious BBQ food. 

So my learning (and tasting) began. 

Lesson One: Preparation and guidelines. Setting the standards.

This might all sound a bit obvious, but it really does all start with the end goal in mind.  Being organised, understanding what the requirements are and meeting the standards set down by the competition guidelines.  It is the small stuff that you and I wouldn’t even think about.  The simple, obvious tasks and equipment all set up to a specific standard.  All the teams, without exception, had a set of processes ready to go. All the teams had a clear game plan of what success looks like and who is responsible for what and when.  It wasn’t like Masterchef on TV, there was no rushing around, no yelling, no panic.  This is all because the communication, the planning had been done well before the competition day.  What I also realised is that I need to significantly up my game at home.  I have three BBQs and only two of them are wood / charcoal fueled - can I justify more???

Lesson Two: Take care of the process. The attention to detail across every step.

During the break I had the opportunity to walk around the BBQ village and observe what was going on in the kitchens. I was walking the Gemba.  I took my time walking around, watching the artists (and yes they are artists) in action. One of my biggest observations was the continuous attention to detail in everything.  Quality checking at each step in the process.  

The quality and type of wood used. Monitoring the temperatures throughout the cooking period, the source and quality of the meat, the skills of the butchery, the recipe of the sauce (I didn’t get any of the secrets), the finishing, the presentation.  Across the whole process there was quality management at the source at every step.  Reflecting on the business lessons - this follows the mantra of Dr W Edwards Deming - you don’t pass on errors and you don’t accept errors. Every action had a purpose and it was driven and guided by the original game plan.

Lesson Three: Continuous improvement - learn, feedback, change, adapt and get better.

These BBQ artists are passionate about what they do, but a very close second is their passion to learn. Continuously seeking feedback with the aim to get better. Always searching for that 1% improvement. 

The competition was completed over a two day period.  Both days they teams were required to cook the same cuts of meat.  They had to produce four separate rounds of delicious food. So the opportunity to receive feedback was high. Overall there were 8 separate opportunities to gather data and information to guide and adapt their game plan. There is a massive hunger (pun intended) across all the teams to analyse everything they do to produce that perfect cook.  Notes and information is continuously gathered across the whole process.  It isn’t just the final data, but it is the power of information across the whole process that guides actions and improvements to strive for the elusive perfect outcome.  It is finding microscopic gains and the cumulative results of these gains are what makes the difference between success and the weekend chef. 

Hearing stories from the competitors about the biggest mistakes that have enabled the biggest lessons and opportunities.  It was the system each team had created to utilise the long-term learning, while being flexible enough to adapt to the in-competition results to produce the best result for the judges.  The whole focus was around achieving the best possible customer experience, creating that ‘wow’ moment from the time the container is opened to the time it was tasted. However it is more than that.  I know the teams love the direct and indirect feedback.  Team members were always eager to chat to the customers (judges) to seek more specific information, get trends and vital data. Only then did they really understand the full requirements to meet the customer expectations.

Lesson Four: Celebrate

After all the hard work, you need to celebrate.  It seems an obvious step when you are reflecting on a competition, but it is still surprising how many SMEs still don’t actively do this. You need to acknowledge the small moments and the team work. 

The natural ending to a competition is the awards process.  This is the formal process to measure and rank the results and these are important.  Many of these teams base their living and careers on the foundation of these results.  It is all part of the journey that the teams are on. Acknowledging and recognising the good stuff that happened creates teamwork, it helps feed and develop the culture of the team. As Sir Ian Taylor expresses, it is this process that instals a strong attitude and belief within the team. How each team goes about this is different, that’s OK.  The common thread across the successful teams was that they all celebrated, they went through a process of gratitude and acknowledgement.  Because after all it is all about engaging your team and success is based on how they perform.  If they are feeling positive about their work, they will produce positive work, think more innovatively, and be more productive. Celebration is a key, critical part of engagement.

Final Reflections

So there it is.  Not too much of a debrief about the best chicken I had ever had or the perfect burnt ends.  It is the reflection on the opportunity for SMEs owners and leaders to learn from an event that on the surface has no relevance.  How SMEs can learn from high performance competition.  The opportunity that small businesses have if they can figure out how to translate the system created by the BBQ community. Understand how this system creates focus and attention across all aspects of their business. How it creates a mindset of continuous improvement, and manages quality across every aspect of their processes. 

This isn’t an easy process. It is the discipline to set the standards and follow the processes.  Taking care of the small details will produce the results and create that customer ‘wow’ moment.


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