More Restaurant Automation – Automating Waste?


YouTube – Automated Bagel Slicer

Right after I posted this link with the Yo! Sushi video last week, I went out to run some errands.

I stopped to get a bagel and found this bagel transportation automation and took a quick video. The register is to the right, off frame. To the left is the area where employees toast and prep bagels. More after the video. This was cool to watch… but….

Would you design a bagel shop this way? Is this automating a poor layout? At least the bagel is sliced in the process, a step that is arguably “value” — if the customer wants their bagel cut and toasted.

Why is the bagel prep area so far from the register and where the bagels are stored? At least, as the customer, you don't have to pay and then go repeat your order.

So, as with a lot of automation… this is cool to watch, but is it worth the cost and capital expense? This uses energy and runs continuously, even when there are no customers. Is it worth the maintenance cost? What do you think?

I've seen a lot of examples, in factories and hospital pharmacies and laboratories, where they've basically automated a bad layout and a bad process. Even if you automate waste (transportation), it's still waste. Instead, you could change the layout and eliminate the need for automation — something that happens in many hospital labs.

Here's a link to a case study about M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, how they used Lean improvements to avoid a planned $2 Million automation expense. This case study is from ValuMetrix Services, the organization I used to work for, but I was not directly involved in that work.

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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. This post illustrates the failure with Lean-centric thinking. Sure, you might be able to reduce individual wait times by moving stages closer, or cut energy costs but not running equipment continuously. However, doing so totally ignores the stakeholders—both employees and customers—who value the experience.

    As we write in Complexity: Bad or Interesting, just looking at a handful of external variables is foolish. Process improvement must be comprehensive, unafraid of complexity—and most importantly, built and owned by stakeholders. Everything looks odd from the outside in and the top down. It's not until you are truly inside an operation can you begin to understand how to make improvements—and who needs to be the one to make those changes.

  2. Robby – thanks for the comments and for visiting the blog, this might be your first time here.

    I like to ask questions to stir up discussion so people can apply lean ideas to their own workplace.

    I'm not actually trying to tell Finagle a Bagel how to run their business.

    I agree that the bagel automation is a bit of theater and probably adds some entertainment value. This is different than a hospital laboratory that's not a public space and there's no need to put on a show.

    I'm curious how you think my questions illustrate a failure in "lean centric thinking."

    Lean focuses on value for the customer, not just waste elimination. If the value from the bagel slicer is worth more than the wasted energy of running it all the time, then keep it.

    Do the employees "value the experience" of the conveyor? Does it improve morale somehow? In lean approach, we want happy employees, but value is defined by the customer, not the staff.

    I agree with you it's the people INSIDE the operation… those actually doing the work, not the bosses, who should be driving improvement. I think we're mostly on the same page here, Robby. I hope you'll come back to the blog and I'll check out your blog too.


  3. I agree with Mark. While it is hard to know the real situation at this bagel shop from the video it seems to a be a decent example of what is often refered to as automating the waste not eliminating the waste. This is also a question for value add or waste. If this complexity is something the customer wants then it is necessary.
    Starbucks has complexity in their coffee process compared to Dunkin Donuts. But the Starbucks experience is something the customer values and pays for. Could it be leaner? Yes. Like the quick Dunkin Donuts process for example.

    Could you design a more lean bagel process. Yes, but first you need to understand the voice of the customer. Business complexity is difficult stage in lean to rationalize. Companies make mistakes with this all the times. Those companies are in the news all the time for loss profits, market share, and bankruptcy.

    Thanks for sharing this example Mark.

  4. Mark – you may feel like you are not "actually trying to tell Finagle a Bagel how to run their business," but the language of your post is written in this way. Your choice of words implies that you have a better perspective and the Lean philosophy of reducing waste to add customer value applies on inspection to the bagel slicing machine.

    The automation may include some theater, which customers value, but it also might help employees to feel a greater sense of partnership with the workflow in the store. And while sometimes the system is behind the scenes (like in a lab), it's ultimately the stakeholders who need to be pleased with system.

    It's encouraging to hear you mention that "people INSIDE the operation…should be driving improvement." That demonstrates that your approach is actually stakeholder-centric, and you're more than likely just using Lean as a tool. But in my experience, most Lean practitioners tend to operate from a position of authority, not one of empowerment. Our company does a lot of post-Lean cleanup as a result.

    My main concern with your post is that it advances (probably inadvertently) the idea that we can and should recommend process improvements based on outside observation. That approach not only ignores all of the information we can't see from this vantage point, it alienates stakeholders who are going to be doing the work long after we are gone.

    You can read more along these lines in our response to a similar post on Lean (actually Lean Six Sigma) at our website.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  5. Robby – I think you're overanalyzing things and reading way too much into my post. I think you're making some assumptions based on a limited observation, guilty of the same thing you were accusing me of in my bagel shop observation.

    Regular readers, and especially those I work with in hospitals, know I don't think that lean is just a tool.

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Robby – it seems like you've probably had some bad experiences with "fake lean" guys.

    Look at Mark's post again. He was basically asking questions. It was the Socratic method. Mark wasn't belittling anybody or calling them stupid (as, unfortunately, the typical Japanese lean kaizen consultant wacko does).

    I agree with Mark that you're reading way too much between the lines. As a regular reader of Mark's blog (and subscriber to his comments feed), I wanted to also defend him a bit.

    "Seek first to understand" my friend.

  7. Until I moved to Cape Cod, I regularly went to Finagle-a-Bagel, and although it has been awhile, from a lean perspective I recall that the bagel conveyor actually serves a good purpose. Basically, a customer starts with an order taker at the registers where the bagels are in view for easy selection (as at Dunkin Donuts also). The order taker uses tongs (no wasteful in and out of gloves as at Subway in moving from food to money-handler) to pick the bagels as the customer orders. If the order is to go "as is" (often the case in the morning), the employee bags the bagels, adds a cream cheese or other spread container if ordered, provides coffee or a beverage cup to be filled elsewhere, and takes payment. The customer is done and moves on, just what you need in a fast, convenience food environment where business is adversely affected by slowness and long lines to order. However, if the bagels are to be sliced, toasted, spread added by Finagle, or made part of a sandwich, the employee instead drops them on the conveyor to move them to the food prep area further along the counter. The conveyor also slices the bagels enroute saving labor although as Mark indicates it could have a sensor so is activated only when needed to save energy waste. Everything the order taker does is otherwise the same in a very standardized process — only convey for prep orders versus bag for "as is" to go orders, and there's just one full inventory of bagels (at very successful Panera Bread there must be more than one inventory — at a separate ordering area or down at food prep or someone is walking to get the items back to the cooking area — and different points of ordering based on the transaction some times, a waste and a complexity). As the food prep area is much larger with meats, vegetables, condiments, ovens, etc., it is necessarily away from the registers, and the Finagle conveyor bridges that space. That also gets customers away from the ordering area so the line keeps moving. Once you have ordered, you can go get a table to eat in or go fill your beverage cup until your number is called, indicating the food prep is done. Now in my lean practice (non-healthcare) I generally abhor conveyors as they pose impediments to layout flexibility, foster queuing and batching versus single-piece flow, but there are exceptions, and I think this one might be pretty good. It is narrow and behind glass as are food, prep areas for health reasons. And if it entertains customers so the wait seems shorter for food prep as well, that's all the better. As Disney often entertains its customers while moving in a line, that's a good thing. Anyway some alternate thoughts on the bagel conveyor …


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