Open Letter to Todd English, Restaurateur


Dear Todd:

My wife and I are both big fans of your The Olives Table cookbook, your television shows, and your Olives restaurant in Las Vegas. We most recently had a chance to enjoy the wonderful pizzas at your Figs location in Boston's Beacon Hill.

I am a fanatical pizza lover and even make pizzas in a wood-burning oven in my backyard. My other passion is my professional life, as a practitioner of a quality and process improvement methodology called “Lean” based on the Toyota Production System (applying this “manufacturing system” with success in hospitals, go figure).

Last Saturday, we had a chance to sit at the bar right next to where the pizzas were being made. What we saw, other than looking and tasting delicious, was a glaring process improvement opportunity that would benefit your restaurant, your patrons, and your staff members (“Todd's Squad”).

As the pizzas come out of the brick oven, they are kept on the wooden pizza peel where they are cut with a rolling cutter. The pizza is then transferred to a serving platter by sliding the pizza off of the peel onto the platter.

As shown in the picture to the left, the “platter” is a cleverly re-purposed baking sheet turned upside down. The problem is that the sheet is a bit smaller than the pizza itself. The pizzamakers struggle a bit with each cut pizza, trying to keep the edge pieces from falling off (or at the least having to reposition them).

Finally, we saw what appeared to be the inevitable… two pieces from one pizza fell off the tray onto the floor, ruining a fig and prosciutto pizza. This delays the customer's order and results in a few dollars of materials waste and additional labor required to make a new pizza ($$ off your bottom line). Now maybe this only happens in 1 out of every 1000 pizzas, so maybe it's not a problem that's going to put you out of business or anger too many customers with slow service. Or maybe it happens a few times a week? Do you have data on this?

What struck me, in particular, was the frustration on the faces of your Todd's Squad members. They weren't happy that they dropped the pieces, even though it's (hopefully) not coming out of their paycheck. This is a systemic problem, the type that isn't easily cured by asking Todd's Squad to “be more careful.” I'm not sure what, if any, response there is from management to the pizza slice dropping problem. I hope any response is constructive…

Here's a chance to engage Todd's Squad in some problem solving and prevention, as the Toyota methodology teaches us. Each problem (“we dropped a pizza”) is seen as an opportunity for improvement. We can ask:

  1. Why did that happen?
  2. What can we do to prevent it from ever happening again?

I can offer suggestions — ideally, Todd's Squad are the ones to ask since they work with the pizzas every day. One idea might be to get custom platters or pans made that would fit your pizzas. This adds cost and expense to the restaurant. Toyota leaders are fanatical about preaching “creativity over capital,” so maybe there's a way of fixing this that costs less (or costs nothing).

Some lower cost ideas might include making the pizza slightly smaller so it fits better on the platter. This would “save money” as there would be less material cost for each pizza, but would customers feel “ripped off” with a slightly smaller pizza? Would you have to charge less? Your pizza, even at $18, feels like an incredible value actually. $18 for a slightly smaller pizza might be OK… but this would be a concern. Given the high rent in the Beacon Hill area, you probably wouldn't want to do something that would cut revenue, such as charging $17 for a smaller pizza.

Another idea might be to build a small “lip” on the edge of the butcher's block surface that they set the baking sheet/platter onto when transferring the pizza. This way, if a piece falls off the platter, it might not fall onto the floor as it did Saturday.

Ultimately, I don't know what the best solution is because I don't work at Figs. I'd encourage you to build a culture where the “everyday” problems like the one I described are solved with creativity, ideas that come from Todd's Squad. That should make the Squad happy and also help Todd's bottom line.

With warmest regards,
Mark Graban

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark,

    Some could argue that you think about lean too much. Others would argue that the rest of the world doesn’t think about “everyday lean” enough.

    Consider this

    “The optimist sees the pizza, the pessimist sees the pizza on the floor, the lean thinker figures a way to make it more efficient and the realist eats the pizza.”

  2. Anon, I hear what you’re saying. I really enjoyed my pizza and the whole time there. I didn’t obsess over it too bad or ruin dinner with my wife :-)

    That said, I thought this was an interesting example of how organizations often “deal with” the same problems day in and day out and somehow people aren’t empowered or given the time to really fix the root cause of anything.

    Is Fig’s going to go out of business because of this? No. Are Todd’s Squad likely to quit over it? Probably not. It’s not like I saw someone getting chewed out and yelled at like I used to see at a certain automaker…

  3. If you’re ever in Ottawa, Ontario, try either Pizza Shark on Gladstone, or Willy’s Pizza (Kanata or Stittsville). Best pies in the city!

  4. The pizza could be cut into two smaller pieces (one for each side of the table), and served on something more user-friendly for a dining table. (Hard to imagine that the baking sheet fits especially well on a small table.

  5. Great thoughts, but I bet 90% of the time this would be like leading the horse to the water, and he does not drink from it…

    “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
    – W. Edwards Deming

  6. Mark,

    I spent a day in the kitchen where we all went for my birthday last summer when you were in town.

    The guy running it was head chef at two 3 star michelin restaurants in London for nearly a decade before he moved to the hotel.

    I watched a full breakfast service and a full lunch.

    The amount of unnecesary movement, poor location of materials and so on and so forth was amazing.

    We had a chat at the end of the day and I asked why the 40 containers holding materials above the sous chef were never touched, the pastry chef opened 8 different chiller draws prior to finding what he needed and the staff kept returning to the chiller to get things during service? He agreed that perhaps there were opportunities.

    He asked two sous chefs to rearrange their work spaces so that everything they needed was within arms reach. Once they’ve figured out what works he’d like to get the rest of the kitchen to do that.

    If it works the opportunities to manage materials differently are amazing as deliveries are daily by their suppliers in the suppliers vehicle so replicating Toyota’s bin systems seems very doable.

    It will be interesting to see how this works.



  7. This reminded me of a blog that Scott Adams wrote two days ago on managing his resturaunt. (

    Here are his management principles:
    Have fun. Loosen up.
    Try something new. Often. Keep whatever works.
    No penalty for a new idea failing. Trying is the thing.
    Employees are more important than customers.
    Stop asking Scott for approval. Just do it.
    Managers get to see the financials.
    Being a jerk to coworkers is grounds for termination.
    Do whatever seems smart and fair to make customers happy.
    Watch the competition closely and borrow their best ideas.

    I don’t agree with all his principles but it seems like he got a couple of things right.


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