The Day I Abandoned Business Diagnostics & Switched to Extending Strengths-Appreciative Inquiry at Blue Sky Catering

A leading in flight caterer, Blue Sky Catering, took over the operations of a major competitor. The new CEO, Mike, was concerned that many of the staff he inherited appeared to lack motivation and passion for their work. Mike asked me to undertake a diagnostic survey to find out what was wrong, what the gaps and problems were with the culture and the “root causes” of employee disconnect.

The word diagnostic actually means looking for what is diseased! At the time I saw this as a great opportunity to apply the full power of my sophisticated problem identification tool set and bring back these back to the executive board table- so I did. I interviewed sixty cooks, chefs, drivers, dishwashers and tray assembly workers and asked them what they didn’t like about their jobs and working at the company- after all it was important to get to the root cause of the problem, so I had been taught. So they told me – stories about workers stealing the bonded liquor, stories of poor quality food going out to the aircraft, stories complaining about upstream suppliers who didn’t have the ingredients or the equipment ready on time.

They told me the D stories; stories of broken customer processes; of disruptions, deficits,

disconnects and delays. This was all the stuff I had been taught in my process improvement schools and textbooks. There was little love lost between different areas of the facility. The chefs didn’t talk with the assembly workers who in turn left the food they plated in holding fridges to be picked up by the drivers who walked across no man’s land to pick up the food but did not speak to assembly workers.

I was so excited; this was the best diagnostic I had ever done and I couldn’t wait to share all these wonderful problems with the Executive. I was really earning my money. So I went back up to the board room and did just that and by the end of two hours, everyone in the room was on the floor totally demoralised, dismayed and de-energised. Then one executive cried out “don’t we ever do anything well around here!” At that point my mind flashed back a few years to a presentation I had seen about Appreciative Inquiry, an emerging paradigm on focusing business change conversations on discovering and building on what works, not what is broken. The penny dropped for me at that point, so I persuaded Mike to let me go back in to the facilities and re interview the staff. Except this time I would focus only on finding and bringing back stories of what worked for people, stories of peak engagement, great processes and results, even if this wasn’t the norm.


So we got the positive stories. Stories like the one from the staff member, Mike, who had been working the dishwasher and said that the time he had felt most engaged was ten years ago when he could see and talk to the next person on the dishwater who took the plates that Mike loaded onto the conveyor belt. Mike could see this person and talk with him, so he was connected socially with another human being. Mike’s Business DNA talent profile identified that he has a natural wiring around the need for social connections at work; he needed to talk with people to be well and do well.


This is what I call the “emotional white spaces” in the process. But what had the company subsequently done in the ten years since Mike said he was emotionally engaged with his work? They had bought in new equipment which automated part of the process, reduced the number of operators and separated them spatially; all in the name of efficiency and automation. Didn’t ask Mike did they? Mike could no longer see his mate on the dishwater and he didn’t get to talk to anyone any more whilst he was working and his performance slipped. Mike said “I would love to work with another operator again and have someone to talk to; I wouldn’t get distracted and make so many mistakes.”


Then there was the story from Jill, the Leading Hand Plating Assembly Team, who said that she basically rocked up to work and did her bit and then went home. She actually ran a successful part time home catering business outside of work but said she came to work at the catering company to make some extra money. I asked her if there had ever been a time when she felt that she was using her business talents at work and she said only one time in four years but she remembered it well. Here is her story.

‘It was a weekend, I was on a shift and all the managers were away on some sort of training course. We only had a skeleton staff and then we got a call to say that a flight on route from Christchurch to Jakarta had been forced to divert for emergency repairs. It was due to land in two hours and the airline had put in an urgent request for meals for 150 passengers.

Even though the airline had no current contract with us, we wanted to help. But what to do here; there no managers around and no menus to work from – this was manager’s business, wasn’t it?’

No one on the ground floor was authorised to create menus. But Jill and the other team leaders really wanted to help the stranded airline passengers- compassion was hard wired into their DNA.

So Jill got the other team leaders and members together and in thirty minutes the whole team had created a meal menu from what was available in the fridges. They pulled together as one team to cook, assemble and load the trucks with the meals. All demarcations and current processes were forgotten as they worked together. They shared tasks so that the assembly team went out on the truck with the drivers to help load the plane but also to explain to the flight attendants what was in the menu. This was unheard off; assembly people are not allowed to go out on the trucks, this is a demarcation issue and it’s not in the process! This was the first and only time that the people who prepared the food got to speak to the people who served the food (the flight attendants) in real time, an emotional white space.

One week later, the airline sent a letter of thanks to the company CEO saying that this was the best customer service they had ever experienced from any caterer. Six of the eight staff interviewed in the catering unit brought up this story as their best experience of working at the company and could they experience it again- could they please get to own what they create for more of the time?

When the executives heard this and the other positive stories, you could have heard a pin drop in the room- it was an adaptive moment. A decision was taken at that meeting to pull a project team together comprising people on the ground floor to design emotionally lean work processes so that people could be engaged with their work and their customers for more of the time by identifying strengths around times when staffs were happiest at work and customers engaged by the outstanding service they received. The project transformed the culture and the results in the company (see Story 5 in this series). But this transformation would not have occurred had we focused on looking for what was broken and not working – rather than for the times people were truly engaged in their work as they were when they banded together to look after the stranded passengers on the diverted plane.

Peter Drucker said that ‘the role of leaders is to align strengths; thereby making your weaknesses irrelevant.’

I would add to this – ‘first engage your people in discovering their unique strengths and then involve them in the work to create a shared, meaningful future.’