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"Roll"-ing Out Lean at Kura Sushi

by Katie Anderson
November 29, 2018

"Roll"-ing Out Lean at Kura Sushi

by Katie Anderson
November 29, 2018 | Comments (7)

One might expect that all restaurants in Japan are operated with lean principles, but as I quickly learned when we moved to Japan, lean thinking and practice is not synonymous with Japanese culture.

So it was with the joy of a lean geek to discover how many familiar principles I observed while dining in Japan at Kura Sushi, which local friends recommended to me and my family as a “must experience” Japanese conveyor belt sushi joint that our young kids would enjoy for the gadgets, while still meeting the mark for good food.

Kura Sushi was based on a similar concept as the “sushi boat” restaurants I’d eaten at in the states (where plates of pre-made sushi offerings are served via conveyors at your table); I found it to be much more than that. We all were wowed by the cute atmosphere and electronic gaming sounds, happy with the the low price and high quality fish, and giddy when our plates plates and drinks shot out via conveyer belt directly to our table.

But even more than the fun devices and decent food, I was thrilled by the Lean principles in action. I’ve now been back several more times to Kura Sushi in Japan to bring other lean thinkers in for this “lean sushi” experience. Just this past May when I was back in Japan, I went twice: once as part of a Japan Lean study trip I was leading, and once the following week with my kids who joined me after the Study Trip for their first time back to Japan in two years. In fact, our kids now 4 and 7, said that Kura Sushi was on their bucket list of things! Here’s what we observed:

VISUAL CONTROLS AND 5S PRINCIPLES:

When you walk into a Kura Sushi restaurant with your “lean” eyes open, you will immediately notice the amount of visual controls and 5S principles used throughout the restaurant. For example, even my kids could easily find their table without help due to the color and number coding system in place:

 

When your table is ready, you are given a color coded card with a number than matches the colors and number on the map hanging on the wall. A color coded map hangs in each aisle with corresponding numbers and colors representing each table. A numbered and colored sign is also on each table. This allows anyone to find their table easily:

 

STANDARD TABLE SETUP

When you arrive at your table, you find that everything has clearly been “set in place” and there is a process to replenish cups, plates, and other items (or at least there has appeared to be a process as ocassionally the floating server would replenish items). As you see below, note the cups above and the condiments, chopsticks, matcha (green tea) makings on the table.

 

 

AUTOMATION WITH A HUMAN TOUCH

While I’ve never been to the back of the restaurant (I’m going to see if I can get a tour when I return to Japan in February to prepare for the next Japan Study Trip I’m leading in May), Kura Sushi shows on their website that they use a combination of humans and robots to prepare the food (“autonomization” – automation with a human touch).

 

A MIX OF "PULL" AND "PUSH" (OR WHAT OTHERS MIGHT CALL FIXED AND FLEXIBLE)

Customers obtain food and specialty drinks in two separate ways. The first, which might be called "pull", or make on demand, happens when customers order through the computer system at their table. You can browse through the computer screens that show photos of the different food and drink options, and with a few touches submit your order directly to the kitchen. No server is required to take your order. 

 

The kitchen manages WIP by limiting the amount of new orders the system will accept at any one time. The computer at your table will alert you with a message to "wait" until more capacity is available, and then let you know when new orders are being accepted.

When your food is ready, it is zipped out to you on the conveyor belt, right exactly to your table, announced by gaming music and your table’s computer. Pretty cool! And way better than anything I’ve seen at a sushi boat restaurant!

 

The other method is akin to a push system, in which you collect pre-prepared plates off the moving conveyor belt on a lower level, similar to a sushi boat restaurant. Dome-shaped covers protect the food as the plates circle the restaurant. Note in the picture below that the restaurant has the flexibilty to shorten the route if fewer customers are in the restaurant by shortening the distance the food travels with these movable plastic guiders.

 

REDUCE WASTE BY UNDERSTANDING DEMAND  

I’ve always wondered how long sushi has been going round and round at sushi boat restaurants? When does it expire? And how much wasted food is produced each day?

The concept of “mottanai”, or deep regret of waste, is one deeply ingrained in Japanese people at an early age. For example, in Japanese schools like the one we visit on the Japan Lean Study Trip, children are taught not to serve themselves more than they can eat and to not produce more than demand.

After my first visit to Kura Sushi, I learned that the company deeply understands customer demand through studying data from bar codes on deposited plates to understand common customer usage and to plan for how much of each plate to pre-make.  

POKAYOKE: MISTAKE-PROOFING FOR CUSTOMERS

There are several mistake proofing elements in place for customers.

For example, the soy sauce dispenser has a push button on top. With one push, perfect amount of soy sauce is dispensed for one piece of sushi. It makes it harder to make a mess or waste soy sauce or ruining your food.

The visual display of menu options also helps reduce any errors in ordering. However, there was one fail in the process when I took my children on an excursion to city of Kanazawa, where fewer foreign tourists visit. Every other Kura Sushi restaurant that I’d been too had an option for English on the computer. However, not in Kanazawa! I was surprised, as it would be easy to have the computer program with the English menu. But still with the highly visual menu I was able to order mostly what we wanted, though mango juice looks very similar to orange juice much to my 7 year old’s dismay.

ONE-PIECE FLOW FOR DIRTY PLATES

When you are finished with a plate, you deposit it down a shoot at your table. The plate is not only counted via bar code to add to your bill (and give data to understand demand), but the plate is automatically conveyed via an automated delivery system under the conveyor belts to the back of the restaurant to be washed. This eliminates plates from stacking up on the table, and helps prevents messes.

 

LEARN MORE

You can read more about Kura Sushi’s philosophy and approach to providing fun, quality, fast food on their website(use Google translate if needed). They continue to innovate and have over 40 patents for their food preparation and devliery processes!

I’m sure there are many more lean principles in action – especially as I’ve never seen the back of the restauant! I’ll be looking out for them (and maybe I can sneak a peak to the back) when I return to Japan in February to prepare for the next Japan Study Trip, or better yet, join me in Japan in May and experience “Lean” sushi for yourself!

Post-script: While writing this article I found out that Kura Sushi has established some restaurants in the US, one within 45 min of my house. I want to check it out to see how the process and food quality compares to Japan. Although, despite a good effort, I haven’t yet found any Japanese food in the U.S. that compares with the quality direct in Japan!

 

 

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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban November 29, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Katie - Very interesting observations. I've eaten at a number of different conveyor belt sushi places in Japan and have enjoyed the experience.

It's also interesting, I think, that some practices are "just how restaurants do things" and some might be born from a philosophy similar to Lean.

When I took a sushi-making class in Tokyo earlier this year, the chef really emphasized that we do NOT waste any single grain of rice. Like you wrote, that idea seems deeply ingrained (no pun intended) in society there.

I've been to some places where you can grab anything on the conveyor (no custom orders). In 2012, I was taken to a place where you could pull from the conveyor or they had chutes that delivered directly to the table (not from the main conveyor system).

In my most recent trip, I got tripped up at a different conveyor belt sushi place. My mental model was "if it's on the conveyor, you can take it and you get charged accordingly."

However, at this place, they had the computer screen (with English as an option) for placing custom orders. We didn't realize until about 15 minutes into the meal that custom orders were on plates that were on a red base. When the red base plates for your table were arriving, chimes would play to indicate this to you.

Unfortunately, during the first 15 minutes, we were grabbing plates off of the red bases... thinking incorrectly that those were just a different price. We were taking other people's special order sushi.

Oops! Very embarrassing. We definitely disturbed the harmony of the place.

A server or manager said, "It's OK, sometimes older Japanese customers get confused too."

I apologize to anyone whose sushi order got delayed because of us.

A few instructions before the meal would have really helped.

But, again, I wouldn't have so quickly dove in doing the "wrong" thing if it hadn't been the "right" thing previously at other conveyor belt sushi places.

Lesson learned: the standardized work isn't the same for customers at all conveyor belt sushi places. Ask first... (deep bow)

Reply »

Katie Anderson November 29, 2018

Mark - thanks for your comments and sharing your story from your recent trip to Japan. The special conveyor belt at Kura Sushi prevents such mistakes from happening. It delivers your food directly to your table by shooting it out on the upper conveyor belt. No option for someone else to mistakenly take it. The lower rotating conveyor is where the pre-made food is on.

I'm sure there was a lot of deep bowing and "gomenasai" (very sorry) said!

Separately, Kura sushi is unlike any other restaurant I've been to in Japan. There a few that imploy what we might label "Lean principles", but most restaurants, in my experience, are more traditional.

One wonderful - and ubiquitous - system across all bars and resaturants that I love and miss tremendously, is the shouting of "sumimasen" (excuse me) to signal when you need service by waitstaff. No hovering or unnecessary checking when you don't want it, and no peering around trying to catch the eye of a server. Just shout loudly "sumimasen". It's not considered rude. Excellent pull system.

I can't wait to be back in Japan in a few months - and look forward to sharing Japan with others on the May 2019 Japan Study Trip.

Reply »

Mark Graban December 12, 2018

Here's my blog post with the longer version of my sushi story and some other reflections:

https://www.leanblog.org/2018/12/my-embarrassing-sushi-mistake-in-japan/

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Mark Graban November 29, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

A few other thoughts. It's interesting that they emphasize the wearing of gloves. A sushi chef at a counter (I believe) never wears gloves. But, they ensure their hands are clean I'm sure.

I guess this is sort of like the difference between a hamburger made at a fast food chain and a hamburger made at a steakhouse. I expect fast food workers to wear gloves, but it's not expected at a fine dining establishment?

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Katie Anderson November 29, 2018

I am guessing that the reason is what you described - this is mass produced food versus a sushi chef at a counter who has trained for MANY years, a la "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". 

I talked about this apprenticeship model in its relationship with Lean in a previous article: https://kbjanderson.com/toyota-leadership-lessons-part-6-coach-like-you-are-making-sushi/

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Katie Anderson November 29, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Interestingly, this article about Kura Sushi was published less than a week ago in the Japan Times:

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/11/23/business/corporate-business/kuras-kunihiko-tanaka-peddling-vinegar-running-sushi-empire/#.XAB4ve-IaJI

Great history. Here is a section that related to my article and Mark Graban's comments:

"Kura’s restaurants are about as far removed as it gets from the notion of artisan sushi-making. The chain uses robots in the kitchen for some tasks instead of expensive and sometimes erratic chefs handling the food with their bare hands, and an express delivery order lane above the revolving conveyor belt that speeds dishes to customers’ tables.

Kura is also different from other firms in that it refuses to use additives or preservatives in its food. In a typical sushi restaurant, those would be in the vinegar for the sushi rice and the soy sauce and wasabi used to flavor the sushi, but in Kura’s restaurants, they’re all custom-made to avoid this, according to Tanaka. He says he eats many meals at his company’s restaurants.

And the sushi dishes are cheap, starting at around ¥108, a price that has barely changed for three decades, even as many of its rivals gradually raise their prices.

Tanaka says he keeps the prices low through tight cost control, which includes an automated cleanup process. Finished plates are dropped by customers into a slot at their table, from which they’re transported automatically to the dishwasher and counted to calculate a customer’s bill. This means the company’s restaurants can operate with a small staff."

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Mark Graban November 30, 2018

Thanks for the replies and the article link, Katie! 

That's interesting about the vinegar. I thought it was there in the sushi rice for flavor, not just as a "preservative." Maybe it serves both functions.

Arrigato!

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