Patrick O’Connell may not have ever studied the Toyota Production System (or TPS), but he practices the principles that Toyota espouses at his restaurant The Inn at Little Washington. He understands that those principles are the “secret sauce” (pun intended) to achieving excellence, and in a changing world, survival.
More than 40 years ago, O’Connell, then a young chef, opened the restaurant in an abandoned gas station. Today, as one of the 13 three-star Michelin restaurants in the United States (only 106 worldwide), it is one of America's best restaurants.
During a one-hour interview with Doug Bradburn that aired on PBS, O'Connell, the CEO of the non-profit organization that owns George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon, VA, talked about the restaurant and what he is doing in the town of Washington, Va.
During that interview, O'Connell said several things about both his restoration efforts and his food that echo what many of us in the lean world will recognize:
Reference points are powerful. We don’t copy the reference points but apply them in our current circumstances.
For those who have followed my writings or attended my workshops, you know that I have always said that lean principles are universal, but the application is local. (See my Lean Post article, "You Are Not Different.") You can vary the application, but if you violate the principles, you are going to fail. If you build your “house” using the Toyota principles, you can decorate the rooms based on your local circumstances. If you violate the basic principles, the house will eventually crumble. If you want a refresher on those principles, read Jeff Liker’s The Toyota Way, the articles on the LEI website by Art Byrne, Michael Balle, Art Smalley, and other LEI resources.
If you are growing, you never fully realize your vision because, as Janis Joplin said it best, "Just when you think you are at the top of the mountain, the clouds part and you see that you are only half-way there."
Continuous Improvement means…continuous. We never achieve perfection but continue to move in that direction.
There is no such thing as arriving, even as a chef. You never get "there" because there is no "there." And if you think you are "there," the world changes around you. And just as we are experiencing now with COVID, that has required us to be creative, adaptive, resilient, and flexible. That’s how we have to adapt to the future.
Isn’t that what Toyota, our lean world reference point, has done for the past six-plus decades? Are they “perfect"? Absolutely not. But are they still a valid “reference point” for us? Absolutely.
According to Wikipedia, there are about 15 million restaurants in the world. I don’t know if that number is correct, but if it is in the range of reasonableness, then, as a three-star Michelin restaurant, The Inn At Little Washington is in the top .0000067% in the world. So, if you want your business to be a three-star competitor in your industry, try following the recipe (pun intended again) that Toyota and the Inn at Little Washington follow.