When Does Fermented Squid Go Bad? And Other Management Questions

Source: Wikimedia Commons

How long does shiokara, or fermented fish guts last? Just a pinch of it is enough to make a bowl of plain white rice burst with flavor. It starts out tasting, smelling and looking rotten. So how would you know?

This is a good questions for managing a Japanese restaurant. I came across an article describing how chefs and scientists are teaming up to answer this and other questions in order to make Japanese food even more delicious. There are some interesting parallels to how lean management was traditionally taught. The article describes how the traditions of Japanese cuisine were handed down,

Culinary secrets are passed down through the generations. There are no recipe books.

The same was true of lean management, or the Toyota Production System, until very recently. One could argue that the “lean recipe books” are still of varying degrees of completion and reliability. Toyota claimed to not write down their secrets, for fear of the management system becoming static and unthinking. In my personal experience with Japanese sensei there was also a very strong traditional of craftsman-style master-student teaching at work.

The article explains further,

There is not even verbal instruction. Chefs of Japanese haute cuisine have traditionally learned the “mite nusumu” way

That means “watching and stealing” techniques and know-how from masters while they work. Often the student is told what they are doing wrong but not how to correct their mistakes. At best, the student is left to learn by doing, at worst to struggle needlessly due to poor instructional approach. In the early days of TPS instruction by Japanese kaizen experts, there was a lot of loud exclamations of what the students were doing wrong and not always a lot of detailed verbal instruction. Often American companies hired American consultants or trainers to teach them theory beforehand, and Japanese sensei were called in to scold them for doing it wrong. It was not always clear whether the rotten squid guts were good, bad, or a kind of prank.

Elder check Nakamura is quoted, “Even if you measure the ingredients to the exact gram, your food won’t be good if you don’t have a mission to have people enjoy your food.” Recipe and ingredient is not all. Customer focus and quality of dining experience is the ultimate test. Could we not say the same about lean management? If having people enjoy the fruits of lean efforts is not part of the mission, what is the point?

The article quotes Greg de St. Maurice, a University of Pittsburgh PhD student who is writing his doctorate on the food of Kyoto, “They’re using science very differently from the way it’s being used in the U.S. It’s something that is very new to Japanese cuisine,” he said. “Now chefs are realizing, especially in the old restaurants, that their methods are not well suited to contemporary cooking.”

The Japanese management at Toyota realized something similar about a decade ago and began writing down their recipe books and instruction methods for the Toyota Way. Today some entrepreneurs are taking a few ingredients from lean, combining it with customer feedback, data and a scientific approach, and calling it lean startup. Ferment a bit of squid, see if people will eat it, make some more and sell it before it can go bad. That is a good approach to trying out something new, radical or possibly rotten.

To perform at the highest level, organizations need not only a scientific approach to creating their recipe books, the operating models for their business, but also a scientific approach to how they teaching that model, and the intellectual honesty to realize when either of these are no longer well suited for today’s needs.