Friday, February 28, 2014

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Part 2

I'd like to draw upon another aspect of the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary I mentioned in a separate post. 

Foodies are fascinated by what makes a chef, a dish, or a restaurant truly great--something beyond the norm.  There are many factors, of course, but one that often goes unnoticed is what happens long before the lights are ever turned on and the silverware (or chop sticks) are carefully placed on the table: sourcing.  Great chefs are very, very particular about their ingredients.  They go to extraordinary lengths to find not only olive oil, but the olive oil that comes from the first press of a particular kind of olive grown under just the right conditions.  They don't just look for watercress for a fresh salad, they search for weeks, months, or even years to find the organically-grown watercress from the multi-generation, family farm two hours outside of town. 

Jiro (well now his oldest son) won't just go to the Tokyo fish market at sunrise looking for tuna.  He deals exclusively with one tuna dealer who he considers to be a world-class tuna expert.  He knows his tuna dealer doesn't just buy whatever decent-looking tuna came in that day.  The dealer's philosophy is if there are 10 tuna at the market, by definition only one can be the best, and it's his job to determine which one it is and buy it.  If none meet his extremely high standards, there's no tuna that day.  Jiro only buys shrimp from an equally-qualified shrimp expert.  He only buys one kind of rice (that is extremely difficult to cook correctly) from one supplier.  It takes a chef years to find the right dealers and suppliers and to cultivate the trust and relationships that quite often become mutually exclusive.  That's when it gets exciting: when the best only deal with the best.

On my current assignment we are the prime and manage all of the PMO activities.  We might be considered the "chef" with the name on the door, but the program is a complex array of constantly shifting operations, logistics, and technology.  So when we needed to get into the digitization business, what did we do?  Go lease our own scanners and roll up our sleeves?  No.  We found a world-class digitization partner.  When we needed logistics and long-term storage, we didn't lease trucks and warehouse space, we found a world leader to partner with.  When we needed to build an enterprise service bus, link it to an enterprise content management system, hook that to a series of web services, and create connections to a custom portal, you guessed it, we brought on a handful of very smart technical employees and some carefully selected new partners.  Some of the relationships we began with this program, will become long-term, trusted partnerships that we'll rely on for years to come.     

At one point in the movie, Jiro admits that even though he gets most of the credit, the work is 95 percent complete by the time it gets to the front counter and he does his magic of slicing, shaping, serving, and smiling.  Other chefs come in and see that "simple" piece of sushi and can't understand how he's able to build such flavor with so few ingredients.  The truth is, it's taken years of shaking hands while drinking coffee together in the cold morning hours at the market, years of growing a skill set and reputation to a point where more exclusive suppliers take notice and begin calling, decades of being the one to turn on the lights in the morning with one hand while balancing a bag of fresh herbs in the other, months selecting and training the right staff in the fine details of preparation, and a lifetime of dedication to a craft.

So here's a toast to well-chosen partners! 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In the opening scenes of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, 85-year-old master sushi chef Jiro Ono shares his professional philosophy:

"Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work.  You have to fall in love with your work.  Never complain about your job.  You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.  That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably."

The film goes on to detail Jiro's life and how he grew his modest 10 seat sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway into a Michelin three star, $300 a plate sensation with reservations booked at least a month in advance (FYI, a Michelin three star rating means the judges consider the restaurant so good, it would be worth traveling to that country just to eat at that restaurant). 

Just minutes after the opening sequence, we are introduced to "Yamamoto, a food writer" who talks about the hundreds of restaurants he's visited and how Jiro's is "far and away the best."  He then goes on to share what he considers to be the five characteristics all great chefs have in common:

  • "First, they take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
  • Second, they aspire to improve their skills.
  • Third is cleanliness.  If the restaurant doesn't feel clean, the food isn't going to taste good.
  • The fourth attribute is impatience--they are better leaders than collaborators.  They're stubborn and insist on having it their way.
  • And finally, a great chef is passionate."

There's much to learn and apply here. 

First, do we treat our work like a craft?  Jiro's oldest son started working in the business at age 19.  He's now 50.  Jiro says he's still not quite ready to take over the restaurant.  Do we have that kind of patience and humility to acknowledge what we still do not know and couple that with a healthy respect for the time and self discipline it takes to achieve any level of mastery?  Do we have the dedication to take our careers that seriously and the drive to push ourselves to keep performing at our best while continuing to learn?

Second, do we have a written, professional development plan in place that we've carefully worked out with our supervisor (and probably had to negotiate with our spouse/partner/families)?  Do we know what's next?  Are we clear on the next certification we need to earn or the next skill we need to acquire or sharpen?  Are we open and receptive enough to notice our weaknesses and blind spots as we go through our work day or see the results of an audit and realize there is always room for improvement?

Third, do we run a tight ship?  Do we touch upon all of the ten knowledge areas or domains in our projects and programs regularly?  Do we deliver on time?  Do we have our documentation in order?  Do we have systems and processes in place to handle the details?  Are we professional, polite, and yet strong with our coworkers, partners, and clients?  In my mind, this is our equivalent of "having a clean kitchen." 

Fourth, are we passionate about what we do?  If you code, do you pay attention to where you put the curly braces or how you name your variables?  Do you document your code to make it easier for others to come behind your?  Do you get trusted peers to review your work and refactor as you go along?  Do you care about the craftsmanship of your work even though no one may ever do a deep dive to see into the guts of what you've done? 

The movie title comes from a scene where Jiro says he sometimes dreams of new sushi innovations and has to jump out of bed (I would guess as best you can at 85) to jot the ideas down.  Do we ever have a moment or two like that about our work?  Even once in a blue moon?  Who knew you could find so much inspiration from raw fish?