Overcooked! Lessons on Team Orchestration and Optimization

At our office we bought a new game for our PS4: Overcooked! This is one of the best team building games I’ve ever played. It’s fun, easy to learn, and so approachable that we’re seeing people from different departments get in the game room with us from time to time. Highly recommend it!

From the game creator’s description:

Overcooked is a chaotic couch co-op cooking game for one to four players. Working as a team, you and your fellow chefs must prepare, cook and serve up a variety of tasty orders before the baying customers storm out in a huff.

The premise is simple, but execution can be chaotic and very challenging.

Lessons on Team Organization and Optimization

After playing for some number of weeks, I’ve been interested in watching how the best teams organize and deliver in the complex situations they face. And, why do some teams fall apart and stumble all over each other – failing to even get one third of their goal for a level. Having watched a number of different teams I took note of different phases they typically went through.

In total, there were 10 phases that teams would progress through, not always linearly mind you. Often times teams would progress, skip a phase or two permanently, or even regress while trying new – ultimately less successful – strategies.

The best teams, those that have typically progressed through all these phases, become so good that every new challenge is easily beaten on the first or second try. While those teams that fail often seem to be struggling somewhere in the earlier of these phases:

Phase 1: The Storm.
Phase 2: Domain Expertise.
Phase 3: Local uninformed (or “just-in-time”) decision making.
Phase 4: Global uninformed decision making.
Phase 5: Global informed decision making and orchestration.
Phase 6: Clearly defined Roles with bundled tasks for optimization.
Phase 7: Centrally-assigned fixed role ownership.
Phase 8: Decentralized role assignment and fixed role ownership.
Phase 9: Self-assigned fluid roles and rapid, repeatable knowledge sharing.
Phase 10: The Calm.

Phase 1: The Storm.

“what are we doing, how do we even do it?”

The storm is typically when a team plays for the first time or two. Everything is bewildering, chaotic, and the team members are completely unsure of how to deliver on their goal. They’re moving around, trying to figure out what they can interact with, and who is where. Failure is certain unless they can quickly move to the next phase.

Phase 2: Domain Expertise.

“i know how to chop onions!!”

At this point the individuals of the team have independently learned some function that is necessary for reaching their goal. They might not know how to do more than one thing, but they can at least contribute. Often there is confusion on how to put things together. It’s a free for all, people carrying around pots and frying pans for no reason, chopping ingredients and leaving them on the cutting boards – effectively blocking others from using the board. Usually this phase has a lot frantic yelling as people try to figure out the full steps involved to finally plating and serving a meal “MOVE THAT ONION IT’S BLOCKING ME! WHY ARE YOU CARRYING THAT AROUND? WHAT ARE YOU DOING, PUT IT ON A PLATE ALREADY!!”

Phase 3: Local uninformed (or “just-in-time”) decision making.

“i get an onion from the supply room, then chop it, then carry it over to the pot, then run back to the store room for another onion because i need another for this soup… when the soup has 3 onions and is finished cooking, I plate it and serve the customer”

Phase 3 is reached when at least one or two team members have figured out the entire process and they sprint around from station to station completing each task and deciding their own next task just-in-time based on the state of the current order they’re paying attention to. Team mates tend to bump into each other a lot during their constant sprinting around the kitchen as some are faster than others at certain tasks. The individual members are still uninformed of what others are doing, they very often duplicate work. Orders are now getting filled because there are some people shepherding things from start to finish, but the lack of clear cooperation and duplication of work frustrates the team. They now know the team needs someone playing air-traffic controller and coordinating their efforts from a more global view to end duplication.

Phase 4: Global uninformed decision making.

“why did you tell me to chop onions?? the order we need is for mushroom soup not onion soup!”

Phase 4 occurs when one member tries to orchestrate the team by calling out tasks but is calling out tasks that aren’t correct or not in the correct sequence. The leader is trying to make and communicate global decisions on what should be done but is uninformed, lagging or too far ahead of his team, and is ultimately causing deadlock, confusion, and dismay. This is often caused by the leader trying to do too much themselves (jumping in and out of stations when others aren’t fast enough for their liking, disrupting and dislocating them) or when they lose sight of the team’s actual progress in relation to their directions. At this point frustration boils and one or more other team members will start trying to orchestrate by calling the shots… the team ends up like a dysfunctional hydra or two-headed giant, too many decision makers contradicting each other, creating noise, and getting a bunch of half-prepared orders with none ever fully completed. Pots boil over, the kitchen catches on fire, and the team gives up their current work out of exasperation – they demand better leadership.

Phase 5: Global informed decision making and orchestration.

“the person that serves the hamburgers needs to get three buns ready on the plates cause we have three more coming”

Phase 5 is when the team of domain experts, masters of their function, are being orchestrated by a leader that is keenly aware of upcoming orders, their sequence, and what the team is currently working on. The leader is globally informed, decisive on how to course-correct when mistakes happen, and clear in communicating concrete actions to meet their fast paced needs. Orchestration works, and the team is now delivering with far less dysfunction as duplication is quickly noticed and called out. The team now has a head chef playing a crucial role and they begin to look for ways to define other roles and responsibilities in such a way to scale and optimize their performance.

Phase 6: Clearly defined Roles with bundled tasks for optimization.

“someone needs to wash dishes, plate food, and serve orders. Julien is calling orders based on priority and cooking prepared ingredients. and we need 2 people organizing and chopping ingredients based on orders called.”

Teams that reach phase 6 are now quick to define clear roles and responsibilities either immediately before a challenge begins or within moments from starting. The head chef / order caller is typically the first of such roles, but now other tasks are grouped together based on potential for optimizing speed and accuracy of work, and these group of task are owned by a role that team members end up filling. Various combinations are tried until the perfect mix of responsibilities is found for the goal at hand. Teams that reach this phase are usually completing each challenge but are now able to focus more on role and task optimization.

Phase 7: Centrally-assigned fixed role ownership.

“i can’t do the chopping, i’m in the wrong place and cant reach the chopping board!”

With roles defined teams often start challenges with the roles already divvied – the head chef might centrally assign what role each person should take. This works well until a role that was assigned is simply impossible based on the team member’s situation (maybe they are in a remote area that has no access to cutting boards, but their assigned role requires them to cut). Usually this leads to role re-assignment, and typically causes a little confusion and overhead when roles have to shift when people were in the middle of something. Communication overhead during handoff / handover are crucial and quite often something is lost in the transition resulting in rework.

Phase 8: Decentralized role assignment and fixed role ownership.

“who’s chopping that onion?… Who is this?? Hey, i need that — c’mon give it to me over here not over there”

Very mature teams have excellent communication skills which allows them to decentralize role assignment and be self-organizing. In this phase, team members take on whatever role is related to the station or tools closest to them and communicate their role to everyone else on the team. This self-assignment prevents the problem of being assigned a role that is impossible and encourages immediate action without the delay of a central assignment. Self-assigning requires good communication, and teams that have poor communication skills suffer when one team member is depending on some other role to be filled but doesn’t know who is actually filling that role. Adequately keeping everyone informed of who is filling what role allows self-organized direct communication between the two or more people filling roles that depend on each other. Knowing the right person to talk to affords opportunities to quickly communicate micro-optimizations specific to the way they interface with each other.

At this point teams will optimize roles and their expertise at each of them. They understand the clear boundaries between roles and responsibilities, ownership of roles is claimed and clearly communicated, and local optimizations are possible between the people interacting with each other. Every new challenge is overcome without difficulty, the team feels incredible synergy and they develop mastery level execution.

Then everything changes…

At some point Overcooked! does something incredibly genius to ratchet up the challenge, it might even be sinister at first glance. But this twist is much more interesting and shines a light on organization and optimization struggles so often faced in the real world. These challenges are especially seen in the technology industry. Things change. And they change fast!


The cutting board that you started out standing next to and taking role ownership over — suddenly flies over to the other side of the kitchen and in some cases maybe you’re even physically separated by a wall without a door.


You can’t fill your fixed role anymore.
Your role becomes temporarily impossible.
Everything seems to get lost between stations.
Mass confusion.

Phase 9: Self-assigned fluid roles and rapid, repeatable knowledge sharing.

“i was chopping ingredients, now my role has to change but i’m still holding a chopped onion – i have to tell the next role-owner to finish two more onions and take the one in my hand and pass it to the cook”

Teams that reach phase 9 do so in response to incredible adversity and challenges. They now have to self-assign their roles and be willing and capable of taking on new roles to meet changes – their role (career) path becomes fluid – role ownership is not fixed and changes over time. Knowledge sharing has to be rapid so new role owners can efficiently fill the role in the short time available to meet the goals. Likewise, knowledge transfers have to be easily repeatable as roles will change over and over – information must be shared openly and frequently. Team members have to develop effective filters for removing external noise and distractions (e.g., people not in the team shouting orders, onlookers asking unrelated questions) to ensure the highest level of communication and synchronization. Typically in this phase the head chef becomes overwhelmed trying to stay globally informed while facing the rapid pace of role change – some dysfunction is expected as the team attempts to optimize while in constant flux. Micro-optimizations that aren’t clearly communicated or shared are lost as new role-owners lack context behind decisions.

Phase 10: The Calm.

“I’m currently most helpful by chopping (because I have the chopping board), and chopping the remaining 2 ingredients we need for the current order. When that order’s ingredients are supplied, I’ll reassess my situation in relation to the main goal – and won’t be surprised by changes to my role or surprised by new orders, but rather anticipate them because I’m well informed of decisions and changes. I know my roles in relation to the team at all times (either via fluid self-assignment or hybrid of fluid-self+central assignment).”

Teams at this phase are at the highest levels of performance. Each team member is keenly aware of the orders, their sequence, and is fully informed about the local role’s relation to those orders. Central orchestration is helpful, but not always necessary — when the head chef is overwhelmed each member knows what is needed to fill the current orders. Teams at this phase understand that they must respect and maintain boundaries between role-ownership and not attempt to fill a role that isn’t currently theirs. This provides transparent accountability at any point in time. At the end of a challenge it’s often clear why a perfect score wasn’t obtained and who is responsible for failing to meet a role’s expectations. Execution in the midst of constant change is smooth, team members tend to act and communicate very calmly.

Six Years in Japan – A Look Back

SIX YEARS IN JAPAN!!!!!! <- and six exclamation points This post took me nearly 6 weeks to write as well... 5 and half of those procrastinating. What can I say? Another year in the books. Things that cross my immediate memory from this year include:
The birth of my 2nd daughter, Sheila! What a great day, to know that both mother and newborn were healthy and finally coming home.

I say finally, because Ayako had spent 60 days in the hospital — from December 25th until after Sheila’s birth! That was one really tough time for me. I felt what it was like to work a full time job and raise a child (Mia) by ones-self. Late nights, early mornings, weekends travelling to the hospital, and weekdays just trying to stay one-half step ahead of the dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and groceries.

Other more positive things that happened: My brother visited Japan; the kids, Ayako, and I visited Hawaii for the first time; we had several more rooftop BBQs; and I squeezed in a trip to San Francisco. All great memories.

But the real question, for me, is how have I changed, in what ways have I grown personally, professionally?


How I’ve Grown Professionally:

In my spare time I’ve worked on 2 startups in the past year, one of them still a part of my schedule (Teaching web development using Ruby on Rails at www.railsmania.com), the other exited through private sale (FullCourt acquired by MARIMORE INC. http://press.marimore.co.jp/2014/07/marimore-acquiring-fullcourt.html).

As the years pass, I become more aware of the amount of time I’ve spent trying out different business ideas. 32 being my lucky number – and this year turning a modestly young 32 years of age – made it more front-and-center for me. In the last 8 years I’ve tried:

– Freelance web development as-a-business (doesn’t scale very well)

– Software-as-a-service for Medical Case Management companies (had a few customers in the USA, moved to Japan and couldn’t easily support them anymore, so 4-and-a-half years after first dollar of revenue and subsequent maintenance contracts – I sold the IP rights to the software)

– iPhone applications-as-a-business (jumped in when the App Store first opened, outsourced a lot of work – built a dozen or so apps [not all got accepted to the app store], made money but gradually lost interest and eventually closed the business about 5 years later when the long-tail revenue of those apps ran out)

– Private web-communities-as-a-business (think discussion forums and niche how-to sites with communities that are willing to pay for access to content. I’ve still got a few of these communities, but they’ve never generated enough revenue to consider working full time on, but I’m not ready to ditch them yet, either)

and most recently FullCourt and RailsMania.

So what? I guess I’m only sure of one thing. 6 years in Japan have flown by so fast. So many things ask for my time. But looking back I’d not change any of it – I’ve enjoyed the time spent here, with friends, family, and on business ideas.

Every new experience is an opportunity to discover.

Over the last 6 years I’ve discovered so much, but now that new experiences in Japan are fewer – I don’t have reason to document them. Instead I’m spending my time in new business experiences — not only startups, but also at Medidata, my day job. Eventually the sum of experiences will help me discover whatever it is that I’m truly passionate about professionally. At least the variety keeps me engaged :)

How I’ve Grown Personally

I’ve spent far less time this past year learning Japanese than I have in the 2 years previous. I chalk this up to a few things:

1) I no longer work in an environment that requires Japanese language ability
2) My daughters need to learn English, so at home I no longer speak to them or my wife in Japanese
3) I’ve reached a point where I can have conversations, deal with necessary situations (doctor, bank, post office etc)

So Japanese language ability isn’t a huge concern. I did, however, take the JLPT, just like previous years, to continue gauging my ability and force me to study enough to keep from forgetting things.

This past year I also intended to lose weight (I did), and get a driver’s license (I didn’t). I’m running 5km with coworkers regularly, in lieu of basketball – which has been increasingly difficult to attend due to the schedule with kids. As for the driver’s license, I’ve wavered on that a few times thinking “i need it” and then the next day “not worth my time.” More recently I’m convinced I should get it so I stop thinking about it. Hopefully I can update this blog in the near future with that checked off my todo list.

And that’s about it. 2014 was another great year, plenty more ups than downs, and lots of action even though this blog didn’t see much. And for 2015, much like the years prior, I’m going to keep the following in mind

Simple. Positive. Active.

JapanDay Update coming soon

I planned on writing a JapanDay update today. But, after reviewing my previous years’ posts, I decided to give myself a couple days to prepare this update. Year 6 in Japan has completed, and I think it deserves a special review. I’ll do that this week.

Until that time, I’ll reminisce while reading my previous “year-in-review” posts:

Japanese, License, Weight

Three big goals for this year:

1) Continue improving my Japanese. I’m taking the JLPT in July and am currently in a 90 minute lesson every week.

2) Get a driver’s license. I’ve got a few hurdles to jump for this. First I have to get proof that I had been driving for a couple years before I came to Japan (Department of Transportation will hear from me soon). Then I need to take the written test, which I’m studying for now. And finally I’ll need to pass the driving test on their special test course. The last of these seems to be the most difficult from what I’ve heard.

3) Lose weight. I’ve gained a significant amount of weight since this time last year. I’m now on a mission to lose it. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of spam onigiris from a nearby Okinawan bento place, and drinking only green tea (I had recently picked up that bad habit of drinking coca-cola and other high calorie, unhealthy beverages)

End of an Era

Not sure how often I’ll update this blog going forward. I’ve really enjoyed writing here, but it’s no longer as important to me as it once was.

I reached the goal I set out with: document my life in Japan, the strange things I saw, and things I learned so I could remember what those crazy first few years were like.

Going forward I might still update this blog with new experiences. Likely, though, I’ll be busy elsewhere finding meaning and enjoyment in other adventures so my once rigorous publishing schedule will be much tamer. Perhaps twice a month? Perhaps once a week? More, less? Who knows. But we’ll see how it plays out.

I’ll be getting a driver’s license this year — one of my goals. Still taking the JLPT to keep Japanese language learning in my sights (that’s not a goal that disappears simply because I pass that test). And I’m working on an updated version of my book and other projects. Life is going well.

Simple. Positive. Active.