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Focus and Simplify

In my former role in workforce development at Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK), I developed an initia-tive to improve job quality in food production and service businesses. The initiative was based on the work of an organization called the Good Jobs Institute. GJI was founded by MIT opera-tions professor Zeynep Ton who spent years researching the practices of retailers like CostCo, Mud Bay, QuikTrip and others, and came to the conclusion that companies, even those in low-cost service environments, can thrive by improving jobs.

Out of Ton’s work emerged a framework or definition for job quality, as well as a strategy for improving jobs and business performance simultaneously. The framework posits that work should provide for basic needs including fair wages, scheduling stability, security and safety and opportunities to advance, as well as meeting higher needs such as a sense of achievement, belonging and recognition. The strategy consists of four key operational principles: focus and simplify, standardize and empower, cross-train and operate with slack. These operational choices work best with a capable and motivated team, and thus require a sustained investment in people. 

In the HBK quality jobs initiative, we recruited a cohort of ten bakeries in New York City, many of them Guild members, who are committed to the idea that good jobs are good business, and we spent time together studying the Good Jobs Framework and Strategy and identifying oppor-tunities for impactful change in each bakery’s operations and people management practices. This work began early this year, already deep into the pandemic, and one interesting fact that emerged in our sessions was that all of the bakeries had already adopted the first principle: focus and simplify.

The pandemic really forced the choice to focus and simplify onto these operators and owners. Labor shortages, supply chain issues, pandemic restrictions and cash flow challenges required these bakeries to rethink their models and make some big changes, including eliminating prod-ucts or entire product lines, dropping some or all wholesale customers, and reducing retail hours – in some cases from seven days per week to just three or four. 

For each owner and operator in the quality jobs cohort, these changes were not to be a tempo-rary measure. In every case, the businesses were stronger, more streamlined, faced fewer op-erational and people issues as a result of focusing and simplifying. And, in every case, their customers embraced the change and appreciated the improved customer service experience that came along with it. 

I am certain that many more of our member businesses have already focused and simplified their menus, operations and business practices, and perhaps have also adopted some of the other operational principles of the Good Jobs strategy. I would love to hear (as I am sure other members would, too) about what changes you made in the last few years, and how they have impacted your business and your team. 

Another part of the work with the quality jobs cohort was peer consulting sessions, in which the participants met virtually to discuss adaptive and technical challenges within their opera-tions and share ideas for possible solutions. These sessions were sort of our Guild email forum come to life, and everyone in the cohort agreed that there were immensely valuable. We would like to create something like this for our members in 2023 – a consistent and systematized opportunity to learn from each other and connect more deeply. If you would like to partic-ipate or learn more, please drop me a line at  

Karen Bornarth is executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. This article originally appeared in Bread Lines Volume 30, issue 3. It is reprinted with permission from the author.


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