Contradiction in Terms? Lean Buffet

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

I had the occasion to dine at the Golden Jaguar Buffet in Shanghai. Buffets are seldom the places to observe Lean practices in any way or form, but the Jaguar offered a few things of note. First, the place setting at the tables contained surprising instructions. Far from touting “all you can eat!” the message was, “Please take in small quantities, many times in equal portions, please do not waste!” Whoa. Was this Lean thinking on display at a buffet?

Second, there was flow chart showing the recommended healthy consumption pattern starting with cold vegetables, soup, then warm vegetables, meats, beverages, desserts, etc. This is in opposition to the actual flow of meat, meat, meat, drink, drink, drink, dessert, dessert, dessert which was the actual standard practice.
Third, with the exception of some sausage and pre-made sushi, the meats and fish were made-to-order, based on a numbered clip-kanban with the clip corresponding to your table number. The food was delivered when ready, allowing the diner to continue filling their places with other items.

How nice of the Jaguar for wanting us to be lean, and thinking of our health. Or were they? At 200 RMB or about $30, there is practically no way that the average human can consume enough to get a fair return on their investment. The Jaguar is taking advantage of a simple information asymmetry, like any clever service business. One could argue that it is not simple material and labor one is buying during the buffet dining experience, but rather the enjoyment of eating as much of whatever one wants.

The Jaguar is also taking massive advantage of economies of scale, being able to boil up large amounts of crab or soup or stir fry, trusting that the average consumer will rather pay extra to eat their fill and not have to deal with the preparation or clean up that follows. Economies of scale act to hide waste, rather than driving us to address their root causes and thereby improve the process. While necessary, economies of scale are not inherently Lean.

It is estimated that approximately one third of food is wasted as losses are incurred at each stage on the food supply chain. The final step, whether in a restaurant or at our dining table, is only the most visible one. In retail, transport, processing and harvest, there is avoidable loss. Many individuals and groups are raising awareness and taking action, including the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. We live in a potential Lean buffet, a world in which everyone could eat as much as they wanted to eat, if we would only be mindful and take in small quantities, many times, in balance, and not waste.

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