An Operational Nod to Anthony Bourdain

An Operational Nod to Anthony Bourdain

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By Tony Rodriguez, President, Daniel Penn Associates

Sometimes operational lessons get reinforced by unexpected players. This one begins with a story surrounding the late great Anthony Bourdain.

Last week I watched a special tribute to Bourdain’s CNN travel series, Parts Unknown. It was a fond reminiscence of the “Kitchen Confidential” author, chef and travel ‘rock star’ by the people who knew him best: Members of Bourdain’s production crew who, for years, endured the grueling logistics of capturing incredible “Tony moments” around the globe for the Emmy Award-winning show.

The Angst of Not Anticipating

On-site video shoots for Parts Unknown were never predictable. For a 2015 episode featuring Okinawa, the Japanese island in the East China Sea, Bourdain wanted to capture a “moment” where he entered a popular mini-grocery store to buy a perfect fluffy egg sandwich.

Problem was, others had snatched all the egg sandwiches in the refrigerator case. Bourdain’s crew hadn’t thought ahead to buy a few sandwiches, just in case, to “plant” in the deli section right before the shoot. When the cameras rolled and Tony approached the refrigerator case… no egg sandwich.

This began the crew’s frantic search for egg sandwiches in other neighborhood markets. No dice. The outcome? A lost story within the episode. Wasted time and money. And a very annoyed Tony Bourdain.

“Here’s the deal, team,” he admonished: ‘Prior preparation prevents piss poor performance.’ Remember that.”

What Went Wrong
For the Okinawa segment, Bourdain’s crew had the equipment and lighting planned. They had scouted the store. One thing was clear. The crew had not truly – in Lean parlance – learned to see all elements in that filming sequence, including the one essential prop. If they had, someone would have been much more likely to say, “Hey, the sandwiches need to actually be in the case for Tony to find when we begin shooting. How can we make sure they are?”

But as I listened to their retelling of that disastrous day, I wondered: Did the crew truly feel they had Tony’s permission to figuratively pull the Andon Cord (e.g., terminate or alter the shoot when they realized there were no egg sandwiches) in situations where something wasn’t right or complete?

What Does This Story Have to Do With Our Operations?


Problems are part of our work, regardless of industry. Whether it’s planning a video sequence, addressing a production cell hiccup, hitting a software deadline or making sure enough inventory’s on hand for holiday customers, we’re challenged to think ahead.

How many times has your organization realized a collective “Oops – didn’t anticipate that – and our customers are going to be unhappy”?

When employees are given the tools to strengthen their company and create customer value, that organization has truly embraced lean continuous improvement. Unfortunately, most companies fall short in the training and team building that’s necessary to encourage the kind of strategic lean thinking that can bring about change.

What Are The Ingredients of a Solid Lean Continuous Improvement Strategy?

  • Senior management is trained in lean practices. They continually demonstrate their commitment and participation.
  • Everyone sees and experiences senior management’s personal commitment, direction, and involvement in the lean process.
  • The lean program aligns with business priorities. Companies work on things that have a material impact on operational performance. This also requires a cultural standard of excellence and expected behaviors.
  • A governance structure, i.e. a steering committee, directs and oversees the lean program Deployment and communication strategies are well defined.
  • Employees are actively trained to find and solve problems and take ownership of improvement solutions. Training helps them overcome any initial resistance to change. It improves their problem-solving and analytical skills. A win-win!
  • Before-and-after outcomes of lean (Kaizen) events are measured.

What Practices Do Successful Lean Companies Employ?

  • They implement morning huddles and Gemba walks – lean practices that can include reviewing the company’s performance dashboards and forming teams to actively seek ways to eliminate identified problems.
  • They support employee initiatives by implementing and actively managing a suggestion system. They support their associates’ ideas and give them the respect they deserve.
  • They provide lean training at the point of hire as part of their company’s on-boarding process. New employees are immediately involved in their department’s ongoing lean activities.
  • They dedicate a full-time resource, e.g. a lean office, that supports lean efforts across the organization.
  • They internally communicate lean efforts often and through multiple channels: newsletters, emails, groups, and company-wide meetings. They recognize and reward lean champions.

Continuous Improvement = Embracing Course Corrections

Back to Tony Bourdain and his crew’s bungling of the fluffy egg sandwich video shoot. What could Tony, the producers, and the crew have done to:

  • Cultivate a long-term perspective?
  • Teach the right skills to old and new crew members?
  • Allow the crew to carry out their improvement ideas without fear of repercussions?
  • Learn from the experience to avoid future production hang-ups?

Keeping the Candle Burning

Purpose and passion are necessary for your organization’s operational journey. Because the lean process itself is one of continuous assessment and adjustment, managers must encourage and support teams as they refine their processes. Do these things and you’ll have great products or services, delighted customers and happy investors.

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