Welcome to the first post of A Summer of Learning! I’m excited to have you along for the journey. If you want to get the background and mechanics (why, how, when) of this blog, check out these two intro posts – 1 and 2. With that out of the way, let’s dive right into it.
Jiro Ono is undoubtedly the best sushi chef in the world. From his small 10-seater restaurant next to a subway station in downtown Tokyo, he has created new techniques that have changed the way sushi is prepared, how sushi kitchens are managed, and the expectations around what a 3-Michelin star restaurant should be. While most of us don’t want to be a sushi chef, I think there are some macro lessons that can be learned from Jiro.
High Standards and Continuous Improvement
If you watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi (in many ways the godfather of the cinematic food documentary genre), the one thing that stands out is how much Jiro cares about continuous improvement and the elevation of his craft. And the bedrock of this continuous improvement is his emphasis on high standards.
This is perhaps most evident in his obsession with detail. Meticulous head-scratching over the order of seating of the guests? Check. Observing how the guests’ mouths are shaped to make the perfect-sized sushi for them? Check. Massaging the octopus for 45 vs. 30 minutes so it tastes just a little bit less rubbery? Check. Apprentices having to perfect how to properly hand squeeze a hot towel before touching a fish? Check. Taking 10 years to optimize the order of the different sushis to create the best possible umami experience? Check. Jiro is his own harshest critic. There is always something to be improved upon.
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into high standards and how to develop them, check out Jeff Bezos’s 2018 letter to Amazon Shareholders.
To play an orchestra, you need an ensemble (kind of)
The fact that leaders can’t do it all and need a team to support them is well-known. But it worth re-iterating because it is often misunderstood. It should come with an amendment – yes, the team needs a team but the leader needs to cultivate that team.
As Jiro points out, about “95% of the sushi is made before he puts the ingredients together in front of the customer”, but it is Jiro who taught his apprentices how to prepare the fish, how to make the rice, and how to cook the egg.
This goes beyond just his apprentices. His food vendors are all specialists in there fields. Jiro has a shrimp guy, a tuna guy, an octopus guy, etc. But he had to cultivate those relationships in which these vendors reserve their best product for Jiro.
Ultimately, it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that the orchestra performs well. And even though you might need the ensemble, you need to be able to teach the ensemble how to create the harmony of tunes necessary for a great performance.
The customer isn’t always right
‘The customer is always right’ rule becomes obsolete when you play at the highest level. Jiro takes it a step further – he insists that you have to be better than the customer in perceiving what they want. His reasoning – “If your sense of taste and smell are lower than the customer, then how will you satisfy them?”
You need to be a step ahead of the customer. It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a mentor of mine. He was talking about how in his industry (consulting), there is a fundamental dichotomy and tension between the consulting firm and the client. The client, having probably been in his industry more than decade, of course knows much more about his industry than the consultants. So, it’s difficult to convey the macro-level picture that consultants have through their exposure to different companies and industries. But that’s exactly what the client needs – a map of the whole battleground. According to my mentor, convincing the client of this need is huge part of the project. But when it is done skillfully and the client heeds the advice, the client has just leveled up.
The lesson here is that it’s not always necessary to listen to the customer. Because sometimes, the customer doesn’t know what they want. By staying a step ahead of the customer, consultants and Jiro are both able to satisfy the customer’s needs.
Thanks for reading the first post of A Summer of Learning. I’ll be back tomorrow with lessons from a book by a Nobel Prize winning author.