Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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This hotel in Spain was able to apply Lean Thinking in its restaurant to successfully adapt to the new Covid-19 regulations in force in the country, and became more efficient in the process.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the hotel and restaurant industry, forcing organizations around the world to take increasingly stringent measures to ensure the safety of guests and staff. As you can imagine, this has created several problems for businesses in this sector, and with the problems have come many misconceptions - such as the idea that activities that usually added great value, such as the open buffet, should disappear.
Before jumping to conclusions, it is important to really understand the situation and look for ways to reinvent yourself and focus on continuously improving your processes. By doing this, there is no reason to forgo a value-added offering that guests enjoy and that greatly benefits a hotel or restaurant. This is what I learned recently when I guided a hotel in the town of Calpe, near Benidorm, in their efforts to adapt to the new regulations of the Spanish Institute for Tourism Quality (ICTE in Spanish), without giving up traditionally popular offerings.
As if this wasn't challenging enough, we also had to find a way to convince people that it wasn't actually necessary to hire more staff or increase operating costs to effectively and quickly adapt to the "new normal." The application of Lean Thinking in this hotel in Calpe demonstrated this and led to great results.
Lean for safety
The premise was that the application of the Lean methodology in the hotel restaurant under these new conditions had to first and foremost ensure the safety of everyone in the hotel, but also improve the quality of service to ensure that guests did not feel overwhelmed by the many changes that had to happen all at once.
We also sought to maximize efficiency in meal preparation, service and delivery to guests (to reduce or eliminate waiting) and, why not, control costs and reduce them as much as possible. Throughout the project, we involved front-line staff to show them how important they were to the success of our experiments, and we always shared the successes with them.
We completely overhauled the processes and greatly improved the way the restaurant is run by relying on the fundamental Lean concept of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) - the true facilitator of continuous improvement. Over the course of a month, we trained the staff on the new standards, observed the work, planned the necessary changes and adjusted the processes as needed. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that we needed to drastically change our production system to resemble an industrial - rather than a service - process.
One of the most impactful changes we made was the switch from a push system to a pull system, another feature of Lean Thinking. Traditionally, restaurants (actually most organizations) rely on a push system and prepare huge amounts of food to ensure there is enough for the upcoming meal. However, this approach is not the most efficient: in fact, it leads to overproduction, waste and higher costs, and forces us to keep unnecessary inventories.
By implementing a pull system in our hotel restaurant - meaning that the rate of production is determined by demand - meals now start with minimal amounts of food that are gradually replenished based on actual customer demand. In this way, production output fluctuates in accordance with restaurant occupancy, so we are not left with more food than we need at the end of the meal.
Changing the way food is served
The idea of the "supervised buffet" aimed to rethink the restaurant's offerings by increasing quality and eliminating anything of no value to guests. It involved moving more than 90 percent of the kitchen to self-directed and self-sufficient stations in the dining room, resulting in a space that would not only make it easier for the team to adhere to the new sanitary regulations, but also provide several benefits for both guests and staff.
Some of the benefits were:
the ability to offer fresh produce and a beautifully presented buffet from the beginning of the service to the end;
prevent customers from having to wait for the food to be replenished;
distribute the workload across different teams and stations. After observing customer behavior and optimizing space and processes, the team decided to place some of the most popular items in the buffet at different stations in the dining room, which distributed the workload more evenly as guests began to spread out over a number of locations (not just one).
Developing people with the help of Job Instruction: the key to effective change
Changing processes is not enough; it is also necessary to ensure that everyone performs them in the same way. This is why throughout the project we really emphasized people development, teaching employees the work standards we created (another fundamental element of the Lean system) to eliminate variability in production and service.
Importantly, all teams were provided with the skills they needed to work effectively in all stations: all recipes were outlined and written down on Job Instruction sheets, along with photos and production times.
After the training, it was great to see how all employees could prepare all dishes in the same way and according to the same branch time. If at some point during service a line develops at one of the stations, each employee can offer assistance in preparing the required dish in the same way as their colleagues. Consistency is the key.
The application of Lean Thinking in the hotel restaurant resulted in a 70% reduction in overproduction compared to pre-Covid levels - and thus significant savings. In addition, we noticed that after the changes, customers were eating more responsibly and going for a second serving less than before, resulting in a 20% reduction in purchased volumes (and in the amount of cutlery and plates to be washed).
The new pull-based production system means that the same work can now be carried out by a staff 5% smaller than last year, at the same staffing level. From the internal customer's point of view, we notice that fewer people are needed in the kitchen and that the team's work is now better planned, calmer and less demanding. More importantly, we are pleased that team members are constantly making suggestions about what changes are still needed to make the work in the various zones easier.
The changes we have made to the layout, merging kitchen and buffet, have reduced the movements of cooks by as much as 95 percent - such movements did not create customer value, and the time now available is used to keep production and service in optimal conditions at all times. Waiters also move around much less than before, giving them more time for guests.
Customer wait times at the assisted buffet stations decreased by 10% compared to the situation before Covid. A branch time has been established in all processes, based on actual customer demand, which is adjusted every day through continuous observation at each station. It is the flexibility of Lean Thinking! It is important to remember that customers no longer have to wander through the dining room to see what is being offered because they can now count on the guidance of the team.
Overall, customers spend about 15% less time in the restaurant. Serving food more efficiently means that guests have to walk to the buffet less often than before, reducing their overall stay in the restaurant. Faster table turnover is great for business, of course, but also for guests: quicker cleaning, sanitizing and preparing the table for the next feast means that guests now have to wait less time (15%) to be seated.
Not surprisingly, customer satisfaction has increased significantly. In most comments, guests mention how safe they feel when they see the restaurant's safety measures and how the food is prepared before their eyes.
Health regulations introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic have caused a stir in the restaurant industry. Thousands of dollars have been invested in purchasing plastic baffles and other protective items, modifying furnishings and, in many cases, hiring more staff to ensure better service. What few organizations have done, however, is challenge the general way of doing things. This case study shows that Lean Thinking can be used to take full advantage of an otherwise tragic situation to introduce new processes that ensure safety while improving the guest experience and reducing operating costs. This is not the time to sacrifice quality or offer less value to customers: continuous improvement should always be our true north, even in times of crisis.