Trustworthy, Generous and Others-Centered: A Lesson in Value from Canlis Restaurant

By Damon R. Yeutter, VMA


You walk through a nine-foot-tall glass door into a fine dining restaurant perched atop a cliff in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. As you enter the restaurant you catch sight of a large wooden Kura door constructed in Japan during the seventeenth century C.E., affixed to the wall directly beyond the entrance, the first of many symbolic antiques on display in the restaurant. Turning the corner, you look past a two-story-tall stone column fireplace into the sprawling dining room beyond and then cast your gaze out the restaurant’s massive slanted windows, taking in a view of the city as it wraps itself around Lake Union below. You are greeted by a staff member who, with warmth and poise, offers to take your coat and show you to your table.

For three years I walked through the same glass door described above, five nights a week, first as a Food Runner, then as a Server Assistant, and eventually as a Private Dining Bartender. My clients ranged from families celebrating a birthday to political, cultural, and business elite from around the globe. Now, a handful of years later, I serve a very different clientele in a very different line of work, but the lessons I learned during my tenure at Canlis Restaurant continue to resonate with me and have become the foundation for my professional ethos and approach to working in the world of Value Engineering (VE). What parallels could possibly exist between serving dinner and VE, and what could we as VE facilitators stand to learn from a fine dining restaurant? It’s just dinner after all, right? On the surface, it may appear this way, but serving dinner at Canlis – more than my time in international business consulting, campaign management, and as a student at the University of Washington – inform who I am professionally and how I function as a VE facilitator today.

Canlis Restaurant is unique in many respects, and just as the level of service provided by different VE facilitators and firms varies greatly, the level of service provided by Canlis is orders-of-magnitude beyond that of the average restaurant. Canlis is an institution, a third-generation family-owned restaurant with two exceptional restauranteurs at the helm: brothers Mark and Brian Canlis. Their grandfather founded the restaurant in 1950, and their parents before them operated it for three decades. If you were to ask Mark and Brian what makes Canlis successful they would tell you that the restaurant’s three core values, to be “trustworthy, generous, and others-centered”, are critical both in guiding their decisions as managing owners and their staff as they serve dinner to the restaurant’s esteemed guests. Below, I will examine these core values, and how striving to be trustworthy, generous, and others-centered throughout the VE process (i.e. job plan) enhances the results of the study, client relationships, and the reception of VE across client industries.

Fostering Trust in the Pre-Study & Information Phases

As you approach the table, you notice the white tablecloth covering it was meticulously ironed and that the place settings atop it were arranged with care and precision. Additional staff members help seat you and your guests, easing you into what promises to be a relaxing and enjoyable evening. After a few moments, your server approaches the table and provides a brief introduction to the dining experience, offering menus and answering any initial questions your party may have. Your server, without you ever mentioning it, acknowledges that you’re here for a small executive board dinner, and that you’re celebrating a major milestone in the growth of your organization. A bottle of champagne appears in your server’s hand, a complimentary toast for you and your guests. As the champagne is poured into stemware that you only now realize was placed on the table in advance of your arrival, another staff member pours sparkling cider for a guest in your party who prefers not to consume alcohol.

How is any of the above even possible? And more importantly, what does it have to do with VE? The events relayed above are not at all an uncommon experience for guests at Canlis Restaurant, and to be frank, similar experiences should not be foreign to VE clients either. By this, I do not mean that clients should be greeted with champagne during the project inbrief, though I imagine many would appreciate the gesture. Rather, I intend to point out that Canlis taught me the value of robust and attentive Pre-Study and Information phases, and that VE facilitators can learn from Canlis’s methods. At the heart of the VE Pre-Study and Information phases is trust, the first of Canlis’s core values that I mentioned above. To earn a guest’s trust, Canlis Restaurant invests heavily in executing the fine dining equivalent to the Pre-Study (or Pre-Dinner, as it were) and Information phases of the dining experience with a keen attentiveness to the needs of each guest and the purpose of each guest’s visit. To better foster client trust, VE facilitators can learn from Canlis Restaurant’s approach to preparing for and initiating the dining experience for every guest they serve.

Discussing the importance of the Pre-Study and Information phases of the VE process, Rob Stewart states in his book Value Optimization, “thorough preparation is key to the success of any value study” and shortly afterward notes,

Human relations are very important to the success of any value study… The effectiveness of a value specialist’s efforts depends upon the amount of cooperation he or she is able to obtain from the project development team, stakeholders and value study team members (Stewart, 51).

In this respect, Canlis performs exceptionally in the Pre-Study and Information phases. Upon taking a reservation, the reservationist politely inquires after the purpose of the guest’s visit to Canlis. Will they be celebrating a special event? Does anyone in the party have food allergies or dietary requirements the restaurant should be aware of? Additionally, the reservationist will review notes from every prior dining experience the guest has had at Canlis for additional key data points that can inform the server’s actions on the night of the dinner. Do they always order sparkling water? Have they been dining at Canlis since 1950? Is there a song the guest enjoys hearing played by the restaurant’s pianist? The reservationist ensures that this information is available to the server on the night of the dinner, and the server makes the necessary adjustments to the table’s place-settings and plans the dining experience accordingly.

The server uses all the information available to them from the Pre-Dinner phase, and deftly executes the Information phase of the dining experience by eliciting additional data from the guests that will help the server guide the table through the remainder of the dining experience. This includes the menu items that guests would like to order for each course, whether they are interested in wine or cocktail pairings, if there are any time restrictions on their dining experience. Much like during the Information phase of a VE study during which the facilitator must elicit the scope, schedule, budget, and associated information about the project under study, the server must determine the scope, schedule, and budget of the dinner in question. Upon obtaining the necessary information, the server then consults the restaurant’s other staff members (chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and often owners) and uses the information gathered to plan the best experience possible for each guest. In the case of VE, we consult the subject matter experts participating in the study.

Often, during the Pre-Study phase of the VE process, clients deliver copious project documents such as concept drawings, design narratives, project schedules, charrette reports, and so much more to the VE facilitator. Additionally, there is almost always another person in a VE organization or an industry contact who has experience working with the client for whom a study will be performed. It is incumbent upon the VE facilitator to take advantage of the resources and experience of others within their organization – and the resources and experience of the industry as a whole – to prepare for a VE study, much like the staff at Canlis prepare for the arrival of a guest, regardless of who the guest happens to be. Think of a VE study like dinner. Every client has their own unique preferences for the conduct and cadence of a study, just like every guest in a restaurant has a slightly different vision for how their evening will bear out. By arming ourselves with as much knowledge, insight, and awareness of the nuances of a client or client organization in advance of, and during the early hours of a study, all involved stand to benefit.

Why go to all this trouble just for dinner? Or in our case, why go to all this trouble for a single VE study? The answer is to foster and ensure that trust is maintained between the restaurant and the guest, or between the VE team and the client. Instead of beginning the study facing a barrage of unknowns, process adjustments, and unexpected surprises, the VE facilitator can instead use the opportunity to demonstrate that the client’s trust in them and the VE team is well earned. It proves to them from the outset that the VE process is not a threat to the project or project team, but rather a positive and collaborative effort. Without this level of trust, and without keen attention to detail, the experience of the guest or client will be less likely to meet or exceed expectations, thereby cheapening the value of the experience or study, ultimately driving business elsewhere. As Canlis demonstrates, the Pre-Study and Information phases of the VE process are crucial not just for building an understanding of the project under study, but for building trust between the VE team and the client.

Recall the antique Kura door affixed to a wall in the foyer of Canlis Restaurant that I mentioned in the introduction. For centuries in Japan, fire-resistant Kura storehouses were constructed to protect a family’s or a community’s most valuable belongings. Fires were common and often devastating throughout Japanese history, and as such should a fire or other disaster befall a family or community they could use what had been protected in the Kura storehouse to help rebuild and start anew. The Kura door hanging on the wall in the restaurant’s entryway symbolizes how Canlis cherishes and seeks to protect the experiences and occasions shared and celebrated by the restaurant’s guests. It’s a statement of trust, a symbolic indication that the guest’s trust is well placed. In much the same manner, VE facilitators should seek to protect and cherish every project for which they perform a study. It’s vital to recognize that likely hundreds of people before the VE facilitator have been involved in the project’s development, care deeply about it, and that many individuals must grapple with its complexities daily (sometimes for years of their career). It may be just another project from the VE facilitator’s point of view, but its successful delivery could very well be the accomplishment of a lifetime for a project manager or project team. Additionally, when the project is constructed, process is implemented, or product is manufactured, it will be used by and serve countless individuals, some of whom may be involved with it long after the facilitator who led the project’s VE study passes away. In the same way that Canlis endeavors to be a trustworthy steward of each guest’s special occasions and dining experiences, the VE facilitator must endeavor to be a trustworthy steward of the project for which they are performing a study.

Sure, VE is only a small part of the larger picture – much like one dinner is only a small event in the larger timeline of a person’s life – but by attending in great detail to the Pre-Study and Information phases of the process, VE facilitators can demonstrate to the project team, stakeholders, and end-users from the outset of the study that they have been diligent in understanding the project and truly respect its intricacies. By demonstrating this, the VE facilitator fosters the trust required to successfully perform a study, proves to the client that their trust is not misplaced, and establishes in advance that the recommendations produced by the VE team will be well-informed and offered in good faith.

Protecting the VE Process by Adopting a Generous & Others-Centered Approach

You take a sip of after-dinner coffee and converse with your guests, awaiting the arrival of the final course – dessert. Your eyes wander and you notice that to the right of you there is a large oval-shaped table set for twelve people. Quietly but with purpose, a handful of staff members appear with silver trays and remove place-settings and stemware from the table, while additional staff reduce the number of chairs from twelve to six. In a matter of moments, the tablecloth is neatly folded, and the bare table beneath is removed from the dining room. A bartender and sommelier stand ready to replace it with a smaller round table and cover it with a fresh white linen, as a manager and food runner materialize with cordless irons, diligently pressing the tablecloth as others follow behind them with place-settings and glassware. The formerly oval-shaped table set for twelve transformed before your eyes into a round table set for six. Witnessing this table-changing process was like watching a kind of subtle-yet-highly-technical dance. A few minutes later, the party of twelve-turned-six is led into the dining room and seated, completely unaware of the ten-person effort undertaken to accommodate their party’s last-minute change in size. You overhear one of the new arrivals turn to the maître-d’ and point to another section of the restaurant, saying, “We really don’t like this table, would it be possible to sit at that one over there?” The maître-d’ smiles and warmly states that he would love to seat them there, if they would just give his staff a moment to adjust the table to accommodate a party of six…

No doubt many of us have experienced the VE-equivalent of this situation before. Halfway through a study and well into the Development phase, the client stops by for an unannounced midpoint review and shoots down half of the alternative concepts on which the VE team has already made considerable progress, based entirely on information that was not provided during the Pre-Study and Information phases. What is the appropriate response? This is a perfect example of a situation where Canlis’s core values of generosity and others-centered-ness can guide the actions of VE facilitators. As frustrating as instances like these may be, it’s incumbent upon the facilitator to deliver a successful study and place the client’s needs above their own. Doing so requires the VE facilitator to respond in a generous and others-centered manner. Mark Canlis describes the distinction and relationship between generosity and others-centered-ness as such,

A server who is other-centered and not generous is someone who will come up to you and be fake and play you; they know what they need to do. They’ll act like your buddy, congratulate you on your promotion, but there really is no focus on you (Ulla, web).

It’s up to the VE facilitator, in the face of a frustrating midpoint review (or in other moments of adversity) to be others-centered by accommodating the client, even when inconvenient, and to be generous with their empathy, patience, and kindness so that the client’s needs are sincerely and effectively addressed.

The table-turning anecdote above captures this generous and others-centered ethos perfectly. Last-minute changes occur nightly at Canlis and can lead to stress-inducing temporary diversions in manpower, often at incredibly inconvenient points in the evening. This is especially true for last minute changes to private dining events; imagine a room set for a 60-person high-profile business dinner with a key political figure and their security detail in attendance. Now imagine the client notifying the restaurant that the event was reduced in size by half, thirty minutes before guests are scheduled to arrive. I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s anxiety-inducing; one minute I’m showing the security detail the restaurant’s various egress points, and the next I’m marshalling every free hand in an already busy restaurant to convert a room of seven round tables set for 60 people into a room with a single rectangular table set for 30. Scenarios like this one, or like the midpoint review example above, perfectly encapsulate the many challenging eventualities one must prepare for when providing services to a client, regardless of whether that service is dinner or a VE study.

What sets Canlis apart from so many other restaurants, and what inspires guests to return time and again is the restaurant’s willingness to prioritize the needs of their guests – to be generous and others-centered – without reacting negatively to the concomitant inconveniences. In taking this approach, Canlis actively protects the guest from the unintended consequences of their own requests, however challenging or unexpected they may be, ensuring that the guest’s experience remains positive. This commitment to generously putting others first recognizes that people come to dinner, or a VE study for that matter, with countless other pressures, problems, fears, and uncertainties on their radar. Sometimes, clients make mistakes too. Other times, the client is under pressure from above, and the requests they make are more like to a cry for help than an intentional challenge to the VE process.

In much the same manner as Canlis does, responding to setbacks such as a surprise midpoint review with a generous, client-first ethos validates the trust the client extends to the VE team in the first place, turning a frustrating inconvenience into a long-term client-relations victory. When a client arrives for an unanticipated midpoint review and shoots down half of the alternatives on the docket, two possible responses are available: express frustration, possibly jeopardizing the success of the study, or accommodate the client by electing to view the inconvenience as an opportunity to develop better alternatives, improve the likelihood of their implementation, and strengthen the client relationship.

Taking a generous and others-centered approach to VE studies also improves the final product by focusing attention on the needs of the end-users of a project as much, if not more, than on the needs of the client representative with whom the VE facilitator regularly interfaces. At Canlis, it can be very easy to pay special attention to the loudest, most demanding, or most intoxicated guest at a given table, much as in VE it can be easy to divert our attention to – and ultimately develop alternatives for –  the most assertive, opinionated, or needy member of the project team. And while it is certainly necessary to manage unruly personalities adroitly, it would be a dereliction of duty to lose sight of the true purpose of a project, just as it would be a misstep for a server to overlook the guest-of-honor in favor of their intoxicated uncle.

Finally, adopting a generous and others-centered approach also improves the overall experience and effectiveness of the VE team. As you might have noticed in the table-turning anecdote above, it wasn’t just the maître-d’ who worked on turning the table, and it wasn’t a pair of hosts or hostesses designated by the maître-d’ who did the work, either. The instant it became necessary, every single staff member in the dining room with a spare moment chipped in to make the process as smooth, quick, and discreet as possible out of respect for nearby guests. In the same way, when we’re working with the VE team, everyone wins when the VE facilitator adopts and imparts a generous and others-centered ethos.

Being a generous and others-centered VE facilitator represents a long-term investment in protecting the project, client, and end-user. Doing so will inevitably result in additional work for the VE facilitator at times, but it will also result in greater levels of client trust, improved client relationships, and a better over all product at the end of the day.


After dinner concludes you gather your personal belongings and stand, making your way back to the front of the restaurant. As you approach the stone-column fireplace you see a few staff members standing by the fire, warming your party’s coats in preparation for your departure. As you take the coat, the maître-d’ walks with you to the porte-cochere where your car awaits, already warm, ready for you to take the wheel and be on your way. As you disengage the break and begin to drive away, it dawns on you that you were never handed a claim ticket for either your car or your coat.

Every decision made by Canlis Restaurant’s executive team and the 90-or-so staff members for whom they are responsible is rooted in a desire to be trustworthy, generous, and others-centered. There are no valet or coat-check claim tickets because Canlis wants every guest to know that their trust is not misplaced and that they can depend on the restaurant’s staff to, through a commitment to genuinely and generously putting others first, protect each guest’s dining experience. While there are myriad differences between serving dinner, and performing a VE study, there is nonetheless much that VE facilitators can learn from the service staff at Canlis Restaurant. By adopting a trustworthy, generous, and others-centered approach to performing VE studies, the VE facilitator stands to strengthen VE team and client relationships, improve their final product or deliverables, and rehabilitate the public perception of VE.

As VE facilitators we recognize and appreciate the value of the work we do, and yet it can be easy (understandably so) to become discouraged by how our work is received by certain clients. Canlis provides a model for the value industry to follow that can help chart a path forward, not just in the context of individual studies, but for the entire industry as it continues to grow and evolve to meet client needs.


Stewart, Robert B. Value Optimization for Project and Performance Management. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010. Print.

Ulla, Gabe. Mark Canlis on Maturity, Generosity, and Cool. Eater, 2012. Web.