Many years ago, at the beginning of the “ready meal” trend, I got to manage a project to take chilled pasta and sauces to market via the supermarkets. Decades later, the memory makes me both smile and grimace.
It makes me smile for the memory of working with Andreano Rossi, a wonderful, passionate Italian Chef with an uncompromising take on pasta. It took months to finalise recipes, for the simple reason no two he ever made were the same, whilst all were wonderful. He insisted that great fresh pasta varied by the day depending on humidity, the age of the flour and the nature of the eggs. The same applied to the sauces. He applied love to every dish he made, and the process was a joy (if the weight I put on was not).
Eventually though, we had to decide on recipes to scale up to industrial production. He hated it, this averaging out. Commercially, it was a success. What we brought to market was streets ahead of what else was available, even as it was miles behind the individual dishes he made as we worked together. Looking back, I think it was Andreano who got me to understand what makes an artisan tick. The experience made me smile then, as it does now thinking back on it.
What makes me grimace is the compromises we make when we scale. Reducing great to good in pursuit of replicability. Using cheaper ingredients for incremental margin. Simplifying process to cater for the lower levels of skill in mass production and measurement.
Seeing Andreano reduce his art to a formula was painful. You could almost see the joy draining away as he put his name to something much less than he was capable of because that’s what the head office wanted. For me, it added a distinct shadow to the project success. It was difficult to explain to those who determined the project was a success.
It seems to me we have normalised the approach. In so many areas, from education to retail, we do it now as a matter of routine, and have developed not just sophisticated processes to produce acceptably average products, but done the same with processes via algorithms. Centralisation and an obsesssion with measurement is a race to the bottom.
Of course it makes it cheaper, but if I’d said that to Andreano, I would have left by the window, not the door.
Leadership and Management are not processes. They are expressions of our selves in pursuit of – what? Whether money or meaning is a choice we all make every day.
Accepting ready meal standards of ourselves when we have the ability to be artists and artisans will not serve us.