Lean Thanksgiving: Streamlining Your Holiday Dinner Preparation


It's almost Thanksgiving here in the United States, so I'll be taking the rest of the week off from the blog to enjoy some downtime with family.

Improving operations, usually through Lean, was my main job in different manufacturing companies that I worked for before moving to healthcare in 2005.

Back when I used to work for Honeywell (my last manufacturing job), I was an internal Lean consultant who supported a production area that was being reconfigured into a “cellular” operation. This required a different approach to sequencing work and the flow of parts. Instead of a person being stationed in front of a single machine, each working at their top speed (or their equipment's top speed), we were trying to reduce inventory and increase flow by having operators move with the work, trying to balance the work instead of everyone running full out.

Since the work was a combination of manual operations and automated operations (where you loaded a machine and hit “start”), I'd sometimes use an example of sequencing a fairly complex meal.

There's manual work, such as chopping and prepping, and there's automated work, such as letting an oven do its work after you've loaded it.

I'd often draw a Gantt chart for a meal, starting with the idea of doing all of the work in the sequence of the meal being eaten… prep the salad, then the meat, then the side dishes. When you visualized the flow of work, people could make smart choices about how to rearrange the cooking steps to prevent waiting time and reduce the amount of time you're in the kitchen. You could, for example, do manual work for some courses during the “automated” cooking of a main dish.

Years later, I saw this same idea on the outstanding blog, Lifehacker:

Plan Thanksgiving Dinner for a Crowd with This Spreadsheet

“This spreadsheet [produced by mom who's a logistics analyst], complete with a Gantt time chart and ingredients list, almost does all the work for you.”

The Wall Street Journal recently had a similar article about coordinating meals:

How to Win at Brunch: It's All in the Timing

From the article:

“IN THE COOKING classes I teach, the most frequently asked questions by far are “When should I do that?” and “How far in advance can I make it?” I get it. Years ago, even after graduating from culinary school, I was incapable of putting the various components of a meal on the table for my guests in a timely fashion, let alone appropriately hot, warm or cold. I realized that for all home cooks, creating a seamless and orderly meal comes down to one simple but powerful act: plugging all the different recipes and preparation steps into a master timeline.”

Gail Mongahan, author of that article, has written a new cookbook titled It's All in the Timing: Plan, Cook, and Serve Great Meals with Confidence

Knowing basic cooking skills, like knowing how to dice an onion, or knowing how to cook a particular dish doesn't mean that one knows how to properly sequence an entire meal. Most cookbooks talk about specific dishes or courses, not the orchestration of an entire meal.

As we see on TV shows like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Bar Rescue,” knowing how to cook doesn't mean one knows how to manage a restaurant kitchen or how to run a business.

There are parallels to what I see in healthcare:

  • Being a clinician doesn't mean one knows how to run a department
  • Knowing how to do individual work is different than knowing how to sequence all of the steps in a process or a value stream

Successful healthcare organizations (or restaurants) seem to have a combination of clinical (or culinary) skill… and they also have operational excellence.

We need both.

Maybe the same applies to your Thanksgiving table?

For me, my mother-in-law is doing most of the cooking. And I won't be injecting Lean thinking into what she's doing :-)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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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.


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