My Embarrassing Sushi Mistake in Japan; Standardized Work, Leadership, and Mental Models


I had a great time and learned so much as a guest of Honsha and their Executive Development Mission trip to Japan in October. The formal site visits to factories and companies were great, but a lot of the learning and reflection came through discussions with people on the bus and train and there were moments of serendipity along the way.

I'll blog more about some of the site visits and the formal learning in future posts, but I was reminded of a sushi-eating adventure – thanks to Katie Anderson‘s recent article for the LEI Lean Post (“Roll”-ing Out Lean at Kura Sushi) and it's a good follow up to our recent podcast.

As Katie wrote about, Kura Sushi is a chain of conveyor belt sushi restaurants in Japan (and, as I've learned, in the U.S., so I want to visit one in Texas).

Conveyor belt sushi is, in a way, more like fast food (or “fast casual”) sushi — it's a different experience than a skilled sushi chef standing across the counter from you, crafting and handing you one piece of sushi at a time (like the famed Jiro and this sushi chef I also blogged about before). There's a time and a place for a quality fast food hamburger (like In-N-Out) and there's a time for a nice hamburger at a sit-down steak restaurant.

I've eaten at a number of conveyor belt sushi places – in Japan, in the U.S., and in England (YO! Sushi). Here's a video I embedded in a 2009 blog post about YO! Sushi, which is not unlike many of the more casual places in Japan:

The “standardized work,” if you will for conveyor belt sushi places like this is pretty simple:

  • See something you like on the conveyor
  • Take the plate
  • Eat the sushi
  • Stack your plates
  • At the end of the meal, the plates are added up (different colors represent different prices) and you pay accordingly

Click to read all posts about the Honsha Trip

Yes, you could grab items from the conveyor as they went by, but there was also a process for placing a special custom order through a screen, as shown below:

In that photo, there's a conveyor belt running from left to right. You could take any of that sushi as it went by. But the special orders were routed directly to your table via the black conveyor belt that came directly to your table. There was a different pathway for custom orders.

In subsequent trips to Japan, I've usually had conveyor belt sushi once (or more) each time. It's usually the more casual counter-style grab-what-you-like approach.

But, with Honsha here in 2018, our group was taken to a sit down conveyor belt sushi place outside of Nagoya — different than the 2012 place.

There was a screen for placing drink orders and special sushi orders (or other food), but with newer technology. Our group sat at tables, but there was also counter seating for individuals:

Here is the view from our group's table:

You can see the ordering screen and all of the usual things you see on the table: soy sauce dispensers, green tea powder, the hot water dispenser, chopsticks.

So, we knew we could place orders. And, you could generally grab sushi from the conveyor, but we weren't given any other standardized work by the restaurant or our guides. There was no procedure posted at the table, like the one I saw later in the week at a “takoyaki” (octopus balls) restaurant where you cook your own food at the table:

I don't read Japanese, but the pictures help a lot (and that's one reason it's good to use pictures in your standardized work documents in a workplace).

But, anyway, back to sushi. I was hungry when we arrived. There's no reason to wait with conveyor belt sushi — see something, grab something, eat something. Yum, that looks good — I'll eat that to tide me over until the special orders arrive.

Our Embarassing Mistake

What we didn't learn until a few minutes into the meal was that the standardized work was different there! Special orders weren't delivered directly to your table. Special orders were plates on a special red base.


People at our table (and other tables in our group) were making the mistake of taking plates off of the red bases. We were taking food that had been ordered by people at other tables!

How embarrassing! Talk about disturbing the harmony. 

One of the servers came and scolded us (and/or tried to explain) but did so in Japanese. That didn't help much, but it did make us cautious and we stopped grabbing plates. One of our guides / translators came over and explained.

As shown below, regular plates were OK for anyone to take… red bases were not OK to take unless they were yours:

Well, now we knew. I had thought the red bases were just more expensive (which was true, but I was wrong to take them).

The standardized work here was more like:

  • If it's on a plate with no base, you can take it and eat it
  • If you place a special order, as your order arrives (on red bases), the screen will flash and play a song / chimes to let you know your order is almost there
  • You look for the plate with the symbol for your table as the visual indicator that these are your items to follow
  • Your bill is a combination of stacked plates that you grabbed and your special order plates

The good news is that, since payment is based on the plates on your table, other people weren't stuck paying for the special orders that we mistakenly grabbed. It just delayed their food and created chaos for the restaurant, and we felt horrible.

I was embarrassed — I would have been more cautious and would have asked more questions if I had never been to a place like this.

One of the servers later said, “It's OK… some of our older Japanese customers get confused too.” Hmmm, I guess that makes me feel better? It sounded like the Japanese equivalent of somebody in the American south saying “Well, bless your heart” (which isn't always meant to be as nice as it sounds). 

The Power of Mental Models

It made me think about mental models and our assumptions about how things work. Sometimes, having some experience is worse than having no experience. I can see why companies like Southwest tend not to hire people with experience working at other airlines. It can be hard to change your mental models, whether that model is “it's OK to take plates from the conveyor belt” or “my employees don't have ideas for improvement.” We tend to get stuck in a way of thinking.

The mental models of Lean aren't complicated, such as “we believe our employees all have ideas for improvement” and “leaders will be coaches and facilitators instead of bosses who have all the answers.” But it can be very difficult to unlearn what we've already learned and “know” about management.

I'm fortunate that I learned about Lean, Deming (and Wheeler) very early in my career. That's been both a blessing and a curse. There are certain mental models that I take for granted and I have to really force myself to remember sometimes that people I'm working with are having to unlearn things (or the world reminds me of this).

So I think about the sushi restaurants — which is a better process? The direct conveyor to your table or the red bases? Which is error proofed? Which makes it easy to do the right thing? Which makes the right thing obvious? I'd argue the restaurant I visited in 2012 has a better design.

A system that's not error proofed requires a different level of standardized work, training, and supervision.

When we got back on the bus, Darril Wilburn (from Honsha) basically apologized to the group for not setting us up for success. It would be easy for Darril, the restaurant, or leaders in any workplace to say things like, “But you should have known!!” You should have been more careful! You should have pulled the andon cord!”

One mental model from Toyota that Darril has shared in the past (and re-emphasized during the trip) was the idea that:

“Leaders have a responsibility to create a system in which employees can be successful.”

– Darril Wilburn

It's easy to get upset and yell and to blame. It's harder to create an error proofed system. It's also pretty rare to see leaders (like Darril) take responsibility for systems and work together with employees to improve.

I'm quite certain that, during future trips, Darril and the Honsha team will make sure visitors are properly prepped on the standardized work of any sushi restaurant (or other unfamiliar environment). I don't blame Darill or his team — they also didn't know what they didn't know (and didn't know what we didn't know as participants). We're all human.

Disclosure: I was invited to participate in the week's tour by Honsha in exchange for some facilitation support and writing about the trip. I covered my own travel to and from Japan. All posts about the tour are my own, my own opinions, and are not reviewed or approved by Honsha.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

1 Comment
  1. Mark Graban says

    Discussion on LinkedIn:

    And Katie added:

    ‘Kura Sushi’s extra conveyor belt that delivers custom orders directly to your table, as I wrote in the Lean Post article, is a great example of innovation for mistake proofing. Mental models don’t matter if there is no way to make a mistake.”

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