FEATURE – An approach based on coaching and experiments is transforming the way restaurant chain Xibei works with its people to improve service and dishes: the story of Chef Liang and his Kongfu fish.
Words: Jeff Zhou, Vice President, Lean Enterprise China and associate professor of Industrial Engineering at Tongji University.
Many restaurants find their source of competitive advantage to be the good service they provide or the low prices they offer. Chinese restaurant chain Xibei, however, has always focused on making its food haochi – delicious.
To fulfill this promise, Xibei strives to select the highest-quality produce and ingredients. The company has also set up a Chefs School to develop talent, worked to strengthen product development and improvement work at the HQ, and introduced a red refrigerator system to easily expose quality problems. (The lean transformation of Xibei was discussed in a Planet Lean case study.)
All these measures are great, but none can be effective without the support and active participation of the chefs themselves. Xibei’s management knows this, and that’s why, throughout the company’s lean journey, chefs have been deeply involved in the improvement work.
Chef Liang Fei is a master when it comes to cooking Kongfu fish, one of the most popular items on the Xibei menu. He is one of six star chefs working in product development and standardization at the Xibei headquarters.
While talking with a few Xibei people about his Kongfu fish, however, Chef Liang learned that not everybody had a positive opinion on the dish. First of all, the chefs who had to prepare the dish in the various Xibei branches didn’t seem happy: because the lead-time for making Kongfu fish is so long, they had to wake up and come to the restaurants very early in the morning. They would often show up at 6am and stick around for over 12 hours, which of course made them very tired. The store managers also complained that this position had become so tiresome that it was now very hard to find people to fill it (young people seemed especially averse to doing it).
Secondly, quality management is difficult with Kongfu fish: the most critical steps in the process – including the stewing – take place before the regular shift begins, with the chef usually being the only person in the restaurant. This means that determining the quality of the dish solely depended on his ability to self-criticize. At one point, a Xibei executive told Chef Liang: “When was the fish put on the stove? God knows. Has it been stewing for four hours – which is the standard? God knows. Have the ingredients been added as required? God knows.” Those three “God knows” were somehow enough to frighten Chef Liang.
Thirdly, managing sales of the dish was difficult. Because the lead-time is so long and, of course, all the cooking work must be completed before lunch or dinner, the restaurants found it very hard to forecast how much Kongfu fish they should prepare. As a result, the dish would often sell out too early or too much of it would be prepared. At that point, if too much was left, the restaurants had to take measures to promote the dish. When promotion was not enough, store managers had to make the dish the workers’ dinner (a measure that lowers the restaurant’s gross margin). Many restaurant managers and chefs then started the ask the same question: “Can the process of making Kongfu Fish be changed so that the dish can be sold the next day?”
Despite the popularity of the dish, there were also some customer complaints – for example, the strong smell of the dish or the sometimes-earthy flavor. These comments made Chef Liang anxious. In response, he went to complain with the purchasing people, who in turn tried everything they could to avoid meeting with him.
Over time, however, by studying lean thinking and coaching leadership, Chef Liang developed a better understanding of his work. He recognized that, as the chef responsible for the Kongfu Fish dish at Xibei, he was also the one who had to own problems. He realized he had to explore their root-causes and come up with feasible countermeasures. He also vowed to move some of the work upstream to simplify processes in the restaurants, while ensuring the chefs could show up at 9am and leave at 1pm.
But how to do it?
Solving the problem of long working hours had to start with the method and technology used to stew the fish. If the process lead-time could be shortened, Chef Liang thought, the working hours of the chefs could also decrease. At the same time, a more efficient stewing process would allow the chefs to take on more work, which in turn would lead to more profit for the restaurants.
Being extremely familiar with the stewing process, Chef Liang and his team decided to explore the possibility of developing a more efficient piece of equipment to stew the fish: a new induction pressure cooker was eventually developed and introduced in some resturants as an experiment. With the new machine, the stewing process was shortened from four hours to one hour and 20 minutes. Chef Liang was pleased to find that the fish tasted better, too.
The new equipment can cook 70 fishes a day (as well as other dishes), which resulted in a reduction in the number of machines that each restaurant needs. With more of the process now automated, the chefs’ time was freed up. Furthermore, the energy efficiency of the new stewing process is five times higher than the old technology allowed.
This successful experiment saved space, time, and money. It was a welcome change for the restaurants and the chefs.
In 2016, Chef Liang and his team made many more important improvements on the cooking process and the ingredients used to make Kongfu fish. First, they introduced an ingredients package (following a traditional frying method) and removed ingredients like fermented bean curd and chicken sauce. Now, the central kitchen completes all the preparation work and delivers the ready-to-cook package to the different restaurants, which hasn’t only saved one hour every day for the chefs, but also made it possible for the central kitchen to make and deliver fresh dishes every day. This, in turn, results in a more haochi taste. Chefs in the restaurants only need to open the package and put it into the cooker. The new process is very simple and doesn’t even call for the use of knives or the addition of flavors like salt and soybean. The training of the chefs has, thefore, become more straightforward, and the taste of Kongfu fish consistent across all Xibei restaurants. All this has contributed to making Kongfu fish a more popular dish.
Like Kongfu fish, there are many dishes that Xibei’s chefs are working hard to continuously improve (different teams are responsible for different categories of food).
Besides all the inspiring improvement stories, we have learned that what really matters is that chefs and teams “open their hearts” to communicate more effectively with their staff, and that they find joy in their work. This is closely connected with Xibei’s leadership training program to develop coaching skills.
Xibei management came to this realization after noticing how difficult communication was between Chef Liang and other leading chefs and local chefs, during “go see” trips in branches across China. How could they hope to facilitate improvement if they couldn’t even communicate effectively?
The core problem was that regional chefs often worried about leading chefs visiting from Xibei’s HQ and making changes in their gemba. The chefs were also reluctant to expose problems, fearing they would be deemed responsible for them – a direct result of the company’s previous approach to management, which saw leading chefs visiting from central offices criticize local chefs for their mistakes, rather than help them find solutions to their problems.
The new approach, based on lean coaching, that Xibei introduced has taught leaders across the organization that it is their role and responsibility to help people find root-causes and solve problems, not to point their finger at them at the first obstacle. This is the only way to effectively improve everybody’s work.
An immediate consequence of the introduction of the new coaching model was a more positive interaction and more effective communication between coaches and coachees. The focus for Xibei leaders is now on having “heart-to-heart” conversations and closer relationships with people, which leads to work improvements that last. Another important consequence of the introduction of lean coaching is that chefs and leaders have now learned to take a step back and let the people work on improvements and on solving problems.
Chef Liang and his colleagues now reflect on problems and strive to understand their people’s situation, communicate with them more patiently, and encourage them to tackle problems (on the job and at home) more positively and with determination. This has taken fear out of the workplace, and instilled joy in it instead. [This concept first appeared at Menlo Innovations under CEO Richard Sheridan, though it applies to every sector.]
An added benefit of coaching is that it turns the leading chefs into better learner and enables them to take on bigger challenges and pursue higher goals.
Every problem that is exposed at Xibei is now an opportunity to improve. Management is determined to ensure that any future improvement work starts with the needs of the restaurants.
Furthermore, all the good ideas generated by people at the front line have a way of being analyzed and implemented, whereas in the past this was often not possible. As leaders become more willing to listen, people become more willing to talk. At a recent food development and improvement workshop, people in local branches of Xibei shared 10 improvement ideas on Kongfu fish – most of which have proved to be effective. It is now the regional chefs who lead the experiments time and time again, not the chefs at the HQ. The improvement work has become a team’s effort, and because it’s the people involved in the process who suggest standards, these tend to be followed more than before. Co-creation translates into adherence to standards.
Xibei’s slogan is “Because of Xibei, life is joyful”. Following all the lean work they’ve done, Chef Liang and his colleagues have realized there is a strong correlation between joy on the workplace and delicious food.
Dr Jeff Zhou is an associate professor of Industrial Engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. He has worked with lean for many years, in research, training and consulting. Jeff has played an important leadership role in the development of Lean Enterprise China, of which he is now vice president. He is also co-author of How Galanz became the Miracle of World Microwave Oven Industry (2004) and lead translator of Lean Product and Process Development, The Lean Manager and Gemba Kaizen (2nd edition).