Lean Toyota principles in a Food / Retail environment? ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

HBS Working Knowledge, in an article on lean principles in services industries, lists the four principles that the Toyota Production System is based on:

Rule 1: All work shall be highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.
Rule 2: Every customer-supplier connection must be direct, and there must be an unambiguous yes or no way to send requests and receive responses.
Rule 3: The pathway for every product and service must be simple and direct.
Rule 4: Any improvement must be made in accordance with the scientific method, under the guidance of a teacher, at the lowest possible level in the organization.

I love stuff that saves me reading a whole book, but would this work in a food / retail environment? I can't say 100%, but I can hypothesise.

Let's take a restaurant or coffee-shop. The way I see the information-flow is in the shape of a funnel, which is wide on both ends and quite narrow in the middle.

lean funnel.JPG
(If the words are unclear, it's, from left to right, a. customers, b. information, d. goods, and b. production (though the last should be c.))


  1. customers have a ton of choice when they order
  2. they narrow down this choice to their selected items
  3. pass it onto the waiter
  4. who passes it onto a kitchen
  5. where another wide selection of ingredients is narrowed down
  6. and the end-product is produced
  7. which is again delivered to the customer.
And let's take a look at how this would work if the rules were applied.

Rule 1 - Specification of content, sequence, timing, and outcome?
Content is the stuff on the menu, which can be set to a limited number of choices, matching the availability of ingredients in the kitchen. Sequence are points a to d on the picture. Timing is an unwritten agreement between the customers and the food-place that their order will be delivered as quickly as possible. Outcome will be the satisfied customer (who will pay for his order).

Rule 2 - A direct customer-supplier connection / yes or no communication?
Again, this should be possible, by making the menu as transparent as possible and the kitchen organised to produce pre-specified combinations quickly. As for the direct connection, there are several ways this could be happening. A low-tech way would be a number associated with an item on the menu. Little miscommunication can happen on the way to the kitchen. One high-tech way being used right now is electronic notepads, which communicate with the kitchen or bar. I'm not a fan of it, because I think it erects a barrier (of slowness) between the customer and the waiter, but ok, it's a somewhat direct link. Another way could be to simply give the customer an electronic menu. It works online, why couldn't it work on a food-venue environment? The customer presses some buttons, the kitchen gets the order, the waiter delivers or the customer picks it up. Simple (but probably expensive).

Rule 3 - Simple / direct pathway for every product or service?
I'm a little confused by how this differs from rule 2, so I'll probably have to pick up the book after all… damn.

Rule 4 - Bottom-up scientifically co-ordinated improvements?
The key to successful growth is writing a manual / formula that can be reproduced over and over. If you can capture the components of quality that distinguish your venues from competitors, you can take over the world. What this rule means to me is that with a manual should come expertise, and this expertise should be used to train people from the lowest level upwards. The lowest level in the restaurant-scenario is the customer or the customer-interface. Placing experts in that vicinity, ensures a good bottom-up approach and improvements that are targeted at improving the customer-experience. This will also provide quick feedback about what could be wrong in other parts of the supply-chain, e.g. the communication, the timing, the quality of the food/drinks, etc.

Final thoughts
Now, of course, I won't pretend that these four rules are a replacement for me learning more about lean operations. I'll definitely be picking up The Toyota Way, to grasp the more subtle nuances. This was simply an exercise to see if lean principles can be applied to other—non-car—areas. I think they can. At the same time I don't think that leanness is necessarily an excuse for frugality either. It simplifies operations to focus on other areas instead, like e.g. improve the end-product quality for customers.


Copyright 2006| Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.
No part of the content or the blog may be reproduced without prior written permission.