Meal Preparation as a Metaphor for Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on February 1st, 2016

hot dogIn recent weeks my opportunities to prepare meals for my family has increased. I have planned meals, purchased the groceries, followed recipes, prepared the food, served the food, received feedback, and filed this information for future attempts at it. This can be fun. It can be time-consuming. Meal preparation is something that someone has to do almost every day, at least one time, depending on the frequency and variety of meals one prefers. This has started me thinking about the similarities between how we approach meal preparation and how we approach lean transformation.

The all-time most popular way to make meals is from scratch, using local ingredients, shortly before time of consumption. This requires time and advance planning. The process is slow. Mastery of this approach takes time, learning by trial and error, and finding deviations from standard recipes that seem to work for one’s family, customers and/or diners, based on available ingredients, taste, local atmospheric pressure, etc. This approach works best when the diners are not too hungry at the time when meal preparation begins, and when juvenile diners are not too picky about the chef’s failed experiments. Perhaps this is parallel to “kata” approach to lean.

Another approach to meal preparation also involves planning, the purchase of prepared meals (macaroni & cheese, enchiladas, shepherd’s pie, etc.) that can be set in a pre-heated oven et voila dinner is served in 45 min or so. There is very little that can be done in terms of adjusting the recipe for these pre-mixed meals, short of adding sauce. They are quick and labor-saving. They cost more than cooking from scratch. Perhaps this is the “best practice” method of dropping in proven models for lean management within similar industries, processes or environments. One can’t go far wrong following this recipe, as the only room for error is time and temperature.

In circumstances that require the rapid reduction of hunger, there are always the dine-in or take-out options. Speed, quality and cost exist in a triangular relationship, where demanding more of one of these parameters negatively affects one or more of the others. The delivery process of this meal preparation approach is largely beyond our ability to change or improve, although some restaurants may adjust a few things to our taste. We take some chances in paying others to execute the recipe. We are not able to learn how to get better at meal preparation following this approach, only how to become better shoppers of dine-in or take-out. Reputable restaurants will reliably solve the problem of huger for the dining party, for a price. Unless one has the ability to continually throw money at this problem, this approach to meal preparation is not sustainable. It may also not be the healthiest approach, because the motivation of the restaurant as a business is to maximize the bill through additions such as dessert and alcohol, not to be a health advisor. Perhaps this is similar to the “consultant-led” lean transformation approach.

All three approaches are valid. In the modern world, I believe few families, single people or other social units can rely on only one of these meal preparation approaches. We need to educate ourselves, plan ahead, make use of time and resources, and enjoy health meals within our means. Likewise with lean transformations.

  1. Ron Pereira

    February 1, 2016 - 9:57 am

    Great article, Jon. One additional thought… we lean thinkers are taught to think long term. So, our choice of food seems to be very important. So, if you believe (like I do) that processed food is less than ideal, over the long term, and that whole foods (veggies, meat, fruit, etc.) are better for you we must plan accordingly since it does take more time to prepare real food.

    Personally, I think preparing meals from scratch is a great opportunity to practice SMED! So, yeah, preparing non processed food is better for your body and allows you to practice lean concepts in the kitchen. Who doesn’t want that? 🙂

    • Jon Miller

      February 1, 2016 - 10:35 am

      Sure. In fact, meal time is about more than getting enough calories to power you for a few more hours. As you said, it’s an opportunity to get balanced nutrition for long-term health, and also time to connect socially with family / fellow dinners. It all depends on how you define the customer – simply calories? mix of nutrients? or more than that?

  2. Fernanda Vergara

    February 4, 2016 - 12:49 am

    Knowledge makes cooking “lean”. Cooking from scratch is easier when the technique is known and the characteristics of each food known; a good guide that should be in every kitchen “lean” rather than a cookbook, is the proposal to Harold McGee: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen “Anyway, you write me. if you need support.

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